The most insidious thing about social media is that it’s made us all marketing and branding managers. The brand, of course, is us. Every carefully curated tweet and Instagram post has turned us all into little mini-celebrities. Whether you have a hundred, a thousand, or a million followers, it’s easy to fall into a never-ending cycle of posts that keep the likes and retweets coming.
Ingrid Goes West captures that feeling, as well as the dark side of our Instacelebrity world. It’s Taxi Driver for the modern age. In that movie, the mentally unstable Travis Bickle – played with crazed determination by Robert De Niro – decides to assassinate a presidential candidate to get the attention of the woman with whom he’s obsessed. Today, there’s no need to go that far. We’re all celebrities now; our current president’s popularity is measured more by retweets than policy successes, after all.
Enter Ingrid Thorburn. She’s 2017’s version of Travis Bickle. Actress Aubrey Plaza gives a dark performance as Ingrid that’s all the more disturbing because it (and the movie) includes a postmodern comedic element that accentuates her volatility. Plaza explored the portrayal of madness to great effect in the wonderful FX television show Legion, and in Ingrid Goes West, she fine-tunes it. She makes Ingrid a real person, who is able to hide her instability when it suits her. As good as Plaza is, though, it is fair to question how this neurotic, mental instability is treated on screen.
Ingrid’s obsession, social media star Taylor Sloane, is Taxi Driver’s Betsy and Senator Palantine rolled into one. Ingrid Goes West is a twisted and improbably funny look at a tortured mind, and our celebrity culture, where anyone can become the target of obsession.
After her mother’s death from cancer, Ingrid decides she needs to get out of her Pennsylvania home town. Well, that’s not the only thing. She’s also just completed a stint in a psychiatric facility after pepper-spraying the bride at a wedding reception. Ingrid was upset that she wasn’t invited. We see her tearfully scroll through an Instagram feed documenting the ceremony moments before she commits the assault. She’s a pariah in town now, and she needs an escape.
It’s clear that Ingrid is still unstable after her release from the hospital. Despite admonitions from her psychiatrists to avoid the internet and social media, she immediately purchases a new cell phone. Minutes later she’s scrolling away. When she comes across a magazine article about social media star and “influencer” Taylor, she soon becomes obsessed with Taylor’s Instagram feed and her #perfect life out in Los Angeles. A $60,000 payout from her mother’s life insurance policy gives Ingrid the means to head west.
The real strength of the movie, and perhaps what’s more disturbing than the subject matter, is how entertaining Ingrid Goes West is. It’s the chronicle of a woman succumbing to mental illness, yet at times it plays like a screwball comedy. This is director Matt Spicer’s first feature film, and he cowrote Ingrid with David Branson Smith, who is also making his feature screenwriting debut. You can tell that they care about Ingrid. Plenty of the things their protagonist does are intended to be funny, but she never becomes a focus for mockery or scorn. We don’t agree with what Ingrid does. In fact, we spend half the movie pleading silently that she’ll pull out of her deranged mental spiral. At the same time, we also can’t wait to see where her choices will lead the movie next.
It’s impossible to identify completely with Ingrid, her mental instability and refusal to seek help makes that too difficult. No, in this movie about two women, Ingrid and Taylor, the characters that are most easy to identify with are two men. The only way I can account for this – besides the fact that I’m a man, albeit one who has never found it hard to identify with a female protagonist – is that Ingrid Goes West was written by two men, and directed by a man. That’s why Ingrid’s L.A. landlord-turned-boyfriend, Dan, and Taylor’s husband, Ezra, are the put-upon men who are always exasperated, yet understanding of the women in their lives.
In one case, the performance goes a long way in helping us identify with the character. O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who burst onto the scene two years ago portraying his father, Ice Cube, in Straight Outta Compton, plays Dan with an easy charm. The bemused grin that is plastered on Jackson’s face throughout half the movie, as he attempts to get himself out of each mess Ingrid drags him into, is priceless. Spicer and Smith also give Dan character quirks that are comically endearing. Dan is an aspiring screenwriter, and he is absolutely obsessed with Batman. In his spare time, he works on a spec script for the next movie in the franchise. His love of the Dark Knight knows no bounds; he proudly keeps the Batman Forever soundtrack in his truck.
If Dan wins us over because he makes us laugh, Ezra gains our sympathies because he is struggling to define himself in the shadow of his successful wife, Taylor. She has convinced Ezra to pursue a career as an artist, but she is clearly the successful one in the relationship. Taylor has conquered social media, and now she dreams of opening a hotel/gift shop where she can sell items featured in her posts to her guests. The couple joke that she’s become so popular that she now has Instafans, people who are a little overzealous in their love for her. Little do they know that Ingrid, who has orchestrated her friendship with Taylor and Ezra by way of a kidnapped dog, is the most obsessed, and dangerous, of these fans.
Ingrid Goes West’s male perspective is made most obvious by the way Spicer and Smith treat Taylor. They never set up Ingrid for mockery, but that’s not the case with Taylor. The aspects of social media culture that the film most gleefully tears down are all associated with a feminine perspective. Taylor’s posts – in fact, now that I think about it, I believe every social media post we see in the movie comes from a woman – are completed with the kind of hashtags or emojis that men often deride as trite or meaningless: #perfect; #blessed; 🙏; ❤. Ezra says as much in one scene when he’s talking to Ingrid. He is derisive when he describes Taylor’s social media life, a place where everything is perfect. The movie sets Taylor up as empty and vapid. She isn’t even original enough to be inspired by art; she has to steal someone else’s inspiration.
Then again, the one true villain in the movie is a man. Taylor’s brother, Nicky, is the über-entitled white male. Think Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but with a serious drug habit in place of the charm. Nicky breezes in from Europe, and threatens Ingrid’s friendship with Taylor. Getting back to my point about how entertaining the movie is, Ingrid’s solution to the problem Nicky poses leads to an unexpected confrontation and a conclusion that, again, echoes Taxi Driver. Ingrid Goes West is troubling in its depiction of mental illness, and its representation of women is mixed, but the movie is nothing if not thought-provoking.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Ingrid Goes West is a more challenging film than I was expecting. It's equal parts comedy and drama, and Spicer walks that line with skill. It's a movie that forces you to question who you are identifying with, and why.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There's a sex scene that involves Dan's Batman obsession that is in the running for funniest scene of the year.
- Elizabeth Olsen plays Taylor, and she does a great job, but unfortunately her character is the least interesting in the movie.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I'll be a few weeks late, but I'm finally looking at the new movie from one of my favorite directors, Christopher Nolan. He's made an epic war film, Dunkirk, and I'll be tackling his take on the genre.