Ingrid Goes West surprised me.
I try not to have too many expectations going into movies these days, but once I saw the trailer for Matt Spicer’s feature directorial debut, I had a pretty good idea of how I would react to the film. Going in, I was expecting a reasonably funny (albeit gimmicky) Aubrey Plaza-driven romp through California — one of those quirky Sundance comedies that does its job as entertainment but fails to sustain itself after a first viewing because it doesn't say or do anything that’s not been said or done the same way before. I thought I’d probably like it — not love it — for the same reasons, and that I’d forget about it after a couple of hours and move on with my life.
Two days later, I’m still thinking about it. In fact, I imagine that I will be thinking about this film for a long time. It may have a plot summary that reads like a clickbait article, but this film is so much more than a comedy about an Instagram stalker. Grounded by a career-best performance from Aubrey Plaza and a surprisingly likable cast of supporting characters, Ingrid Goes West is a film about mental illness, grief, and the way we interact with social media when we think no one is watching us (or when we hope someone is).
When we meet Ingrid Thorburn, she is scrolling through Instagram on her phone, compulsively double-tapping every photo on someone else’s feed while weeping inconsolably. It’s hard to know what to feel in this moment, as with many other moments spent with Ingrid over the course of the film. Do we sympathize? Do we laugh? Do we cringe? (Is it possible to do all three together, or is that dangerous?)
It’s easy to recognize Ingrid’s pain, but not her utter lack of impulse control, and this disconnect sums up Ingrid perfectly: she is almost relatable, but not quite. Something as small as the way she uses social media in that first scene — ‘liking’ every single post from a person without even trying to “be chill” about it — sets her at a distance from most of the audience. Moments later, when we watch her storm a wedding in a scene extremely reminiscent of a certain Black Mirror episode, that gap between her and us widens, and we spend the rest of the movie making our way back across it — back towards Ingrid.
If you haven't yet heard anything about Ingrid Goes West, here is an abridged plot synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes:
“Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) is an unhinged social media stalker with a history of confusing "likes" for meaningful relationships. Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) is an Instagram-famous "influencer" whose perfectly curated, boho-chic lifestyle becomes Ingrid's latest obsession. When Ingrid moves to LA and manages to insinuate herself into the social media star's life, their relationship quickly goes from #BFF to #WTF.”
I’ve seen a lot of summaries for this film that employ the word “unhinged,” which is everyone’s favorite kooky shorthand for what Ingrid actually is: lonely, grief-stricken, and suffering from mental illness. Luckily, the film itself doesn’t treat Ingrid’s problems as carelessly as its summary does. Almost immediately following the title card, we learn that Ingrid is recovering from the very recent death of her mother. The resulting loneliness is a big part of what fuels Ingrid’s addiction to social media — and the illusion of important friendships formed through miniscule online interactions.
Everything Ingrid does, no matter how outlandish or bizarre, is ultimately informed by her loss. At one point about halfway through the film, Ingrid explains how hard it was for her when her mother died; she says, “It was like losing my best friend.” It’s a difficult moment to watch, because after every cringe-worthy thing we’ve seen her do, the words resonate — we recognize the pain she feels for losing the only person who really understood her, and her desperation to find that kind of companionship again.
On both the podcast and the blog, we have talked a lot about representations of mental illness in pop culture. I don’t think Ingrid Goes West is perfect in its approach — there are some issues with tone and a few legitimately troubling moments that are played for laughs — but overall, I think Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith (Spicer’s co-writer) get it right, especially when considering how tricky it is to make a comedy about something serious. What helps is that we experience the story from Ingrid’s point-of-view, and the film never shifts out of her perspective. Thus, even in Ingrid’s lowest moments, we still feel connected to her — more like we’re her co-conspirators than her critics — and that is the crucial element that is often missing from stories about mental illness. Connection, understanding. Empathy.
It should go without saying that none of this would work half as well as it does if not for Aubrey Plaza. I am on record as a huge fan of hers (despite some of her questionable career choices as of late (cough, Dirty Grandpa, cough)), and this is definitely one of her best performances to date. As Ingrid, Plaza employs her trademark brand of humor, but here she uses it as a defense mechanism — a way of covering for the obvious discomfort Ingrid feels in her own skin when she’s around other people. And yet, when she’s alone, there is a recklessness to the way she behaves that makes her unsettling and deeply sympathetic all at once.
This movie could easily have been disastrous, but it isn’t — it’s actually kind of wonderful. I could write for a long time about all the things I loved about it, from the biting accuracy of its social media satire to the actual perfection that is O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Dan Pinto (Ingrid’s Batman-obsessed landlord/love interest and a genuine ray of sunshine in even the darkest parts of this film). I think I should probably stop, though, so here’s what you need to know: Ingrid Goes West will be in theaters EVERYWHERE this Friday, so #DoYourselfAFavor and #CheckItOut.
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.