Ingrid Goes West is a sharp, funny, sometimes heartbreaking new comedy about how the internet, specifically Instagram, helps to ravage the mental health of a young woman.
But it may not be described that way.
For over two decades, filmmakers have been struggling to deal with online life as a subject. Occasionally, a movie will nail it, or at least escape unscathed from writers who make their living mostly on the internet: the unsettling chat sessions in Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know, for example, or the offhand depictions of social media rumor-spreading in Easy A. (The Social Network, being very much about the in-person dynamics that led to the creation of Facebook, doesn't really count.) Most of the time, though, movies that address social media head-on, like the little-seen Men, Women, and Children or this spring's The Circle, get slammed as out of touch, paranoid, or downright embarrassing.
It's hard to defend those movies because they're not very good, but most of their shortcomings have to do with filmmaking more than their attitude toward social media. But there's a particular strain of defensiveness that pops up whenever a contemporary movie talks about the internet, as if criticizing it betrays some kind of technophobia. Sometimes this flies in the face of what the movie actually says; the most cartoonish character in Men, Women, and Children, for example, is a mother played by Jennifer Garner who attempts to police her daughter's technology use in a way that suggests the mom may have grown up in the 1950s or, possibly, in a religious cult. It also has several major characters whose lives are clearly improved by technology. But still Children was tagged as that dumb movie about how the internet is bad.
Ingrid Goes West may not be hit as heavily by the anti-anti-internet crowd — but more likely because it is, in fact, a very good movie. As a critique of Instagram culture, it's fairly devastating. Aubrey Plaza plays Ingrid, a young woman who the movie first observes crashing a wedding in tears, macing the bride for not inviting her (we learn she has basically been stalking this woman). After a stint in a mental hospital, Ingrid is released back into the wild, and soon fixates on another target: Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a deeply Californian hipster-type whose gorgeously "curated" Instagram feed Ingrid adores. Taylor's stray reply to one of Ingrid's comments inspires Ingrid to cash in the inheritance she has received from her recently deceased mother and head out to California.
Much of the movie's opening follows Ingrid as she attempts to insinuate herself into Taylor's life with surprising success, despite a clear lack of social grace. One reason the movie may not catch much flak has to do with how director/cowriter Matt Spicer and cowriter David Branson Smith are careful to parody how Taylor's real life adventures lead to too-perfect poses of her online photos. To the extent that she's a little bit famous, Taylor isn't famous for anything — just for pictures that instill a vague sense of aspiration among her followers, one that she turns out to share. She aspires to a lot of stuff, and does comparably little.
Ingrid Goes West also roots its anti-heroine's online behavior in an awkward real-world physicality. Earlier this year, Plaza — initially known for her deadpan delivery and withering stare — displayed wild physical chops as an evil force to be reckoned with in the trippy TV show Legion. She's up to something different, but no less impressive, as Ingrid; an early scene where she bumps into Taylor at an arty bookstore is a masterpiece of showing a character who is attempting to will herself into a cool, casual conversation, and whose body may not be following suit. It's a terrific performance, as Ingrid is by turns cruelly manipulative, self-sabotaging, and, in her naked desire for validation, weirdly touching.
This makes the movie empathetic, but not particularly soft on Instagram or the internet in general. Indeed, the best-adjusted characters in the movie — Taylor's boyfriend (Wyatt Russell) and Ingrid's sorta-boyfriend (a charming O'Shea Jackson) — have very little in the way of social media presence. (If Plaza and Olsen weren't so interesting and shaded in their respective roles, the whole thing might feel a little gendered.) Instragram gives Ingrid a clear, constantly updated window into how much better her life could be with properly curated friends — and her sparks of genuine friendship with Taylor are threatened by Taylor's tendency toward social (media) climbing. There's desperation on both sides of the screen.
Few of these observations are invalid, especially when applied to well-written and specific characters. But it's not as if the point of view here is somehow less caustic or cautionary about the internet as a medium than Men, Women, and Children, or The Circle, or even that first mid-'90s wave of internet paranoia thrillers. It's just conveyed with a zippiness and wit that could be mistaken for daring.
Granted, that beats a solemn pretension toward diagnosing society's ills. In fact, Ingrid Goes West may be just what internet-skeptical movies need: one that's good enough that its critique can't be dismissed as easily or quickly as everything else the internet (operating as a theoretical and nonexistent monolith) easily dismisses. Maybe internet movies just needed something to follow.