Ingrid Goes West


★★★★     (OUT OF 5)                                        
RATED R                                  1H 37 MIN                    
AUGUST 11 2017                      COMEDY, DRAMA

Welcome to the latest wave of social satire. Gone are the days when a 20th century comedy of manners like The Rules of the Game could reflect society in its current state, simply by observing how people engage with one another. Now, in order to form a scathing picture of what’s truly wrong with us, art and entertainment have gradually (or suddenly?) begun to acknowledge how our means of engagement have transformed, particularly with the addition of a single element – the screen you carry in your pocket. In the face of evolving technology, the rules of the game have changed.

Ingrid Goes West, the often brilliant debut feature by Matt Spicer, co-written with David Branson Smith, is part of this “tech” wave of satire. As social media emerged seemingly overnight, Insta captions and prayer hand emojis are now as relevant to daily life as a physical gesture of greeting in the street. Because this development occurred so quickly, it’s challenging to take a step back and understand the implications, or how social media has rewired our brains. Netflix series Black Mirror has done a terrific job of exploring these concepts through satiric sci-fi, but as far the big screen is concerned, Ingrid is the first to address them through dark comedy that feels genuinely of the moment.

As the title character, Aubrey Plaza utilizes her comedic talents already exercised in Parks and Rec, but with an unprecedented dynamism. Her character’s instability is addressed in such a way that elicits both empathy and disgust as Ingrid digs herself deeper into a digital rabbit hole. This is achieved through Plaza grounding the character within a relatable emotional space, even at her most psychotic. Credible in unexpected ways, Plaza showcases dramatic abilities we’ve yet to see from an actress of a distinctly comic background. Riding both sides of the spectrum remarkably well, Plaza ultimately gives 150% toward making Ingrid an iconic character of a fresh movement.

The movie itself is almost good enough to get her there. An Instagram addict who, in the film’s opening scene, maces a social media acquaintance in the face after not being invited to her wedding (at the event itself, nonetheless), Ingrid contends with a stint in a mental hospital. Also coping with her mother’s death, Ingrid leaves the hospital with her mom’s inheritance in tow. Her new obsession? Moving to Los Angeles to pursue yet another one-sided relationship with an Insta “friend,” this time the gorgeous, internet famous Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen).

Ingrid becomes “liked” by Taylor IRL, essentially by staging events that integrate herself into Taylor’s life, and by communicating with her on a plane of falsehoods that stem solely through the narrative they generate about themselves on Instagram. An early scene, where they force some poor guy into a vantage point on the ground to snap the perfect pic of them, had me rolling on the floor, as did most of the film.

Overall, it’s an excellent concept, alternatively hilarious and cringeworthy, seamlessly blending the nature of Instagram into the movie’s visual style. It also allows an excellent supporting cast, including Ice Cube’s son, 26-year-old O’Shea Jackson Jr. (most recently seen in Straight Outta Compton), Wyatt Russell (a vet of Black Mirror), and Billy Magnussen, the opportunity to flex their comedic chops.

Unfortunately, the first two thirds of Ingrid are so excellent that it only makes the uneven writing in the third act all the more disappointing. Jackson is a perfectly believable human being named Dan, Ingrid’s landlord with whom she quickly becomes romantically entangled. Later in the film, it becomes increasingly clear that the script is never going to fully explore whether it’s possible for a social media addict/stalker to grow into having a “real” relationship, instead of utilizing a partner merely for presentational purposes and personal gain. Although Ingrid hints at this dynamic, the writing ultimately glosses over any meaningful takeaway.

More effective is the progression of Ingrid and Taylor’s relationship, and the way the movie assesses the superficiality at its foundation. Like Plaza, Olsen totes the line between comedy and drama without batting an eye. To quote Kanye (seems like an appropriate parallel between media that pokes fun at L.A. “fakeness”): “Real friends… it’s not many of us, we smile at each other… but how many honest?”

For the most part, Ingrid does a fantastic job transitioning the fake smiles into inevitable pain, and expounding on the lack of honesty that leads to kidnapping, dognapping, damaged vehicles, cocaine, and physical violence. As necessarily over-the-top as it is, however, Ingrid never quite gets to a madcap Spring Breakers level of satire – its stylized insanity softens at the last moment, not quite becoming dark or provocative enough to fully express its ideas. Furthermore, the script introduces a compelling twist near the end that serves as something of a cop-out, instead of a profound assessment of how the film has built to this moment, the impact that it has on Ingrid, and the implications behind its mass “social media reaction.”

Frustrations with the final 15-20 minutes notwithstanding, Matt Spicer has crafted a better stab at a social media obsessed society than any movie of its kind. In only his first film, Spicer uniquely addresses these ideas and directs his actors with a mindful eye, prompting a bright future for Ingrid Goes West as something of a cult classic.

At the end of the day, Plaza is what makes the film work, though the script’s immediacy and relevance is undeniable. The scary thought of life as representation instead of experience is increasingly relatable, as is the disturbing notion of performing to one another instead of forming meaningful relationships. Every character in Ingrid is either lying to themselves or one another, forming a bleak picture of the ways social media has made it easier to feign contentment. The bitter irony, like many situations in life, is that personal choice remains. The four-digit passcode to happiness is in your hands. Or not.

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