‘Ingrid Goes West’ takes a critical look at self-reinvention, stalking and social media

September 23, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 23, 2017

Ingrid Thorburn, the main character in the new movie Ingrid Goes West, would really really like to be your friend — if, that is, you’re one of those young women who projects a kind of effortless perfection on social media.

Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza, probably best known from a recurring role on the sitcom Parks and Recreation) can be an excellent friend. She’ll like all your posts on Facebook or Instagram, and she can engage in the kind of amusing digital banter that sometimes makes social networking such an entertaining diversion. She’ll even move halfway across the country, rent a room in your neighborhood, buy the kind of clothing you wear, patronize your favorite restaurant, get her hair styled just like yours and kidnap your dog just so she can insinuate her way into your life.

There’s a catch, of course. (There’s always a catch, isn’t there?) Ingrid would prefer that your friendship be kind of an exclusive thing. While she might be willing to share your affections with a husband, she’s not particularly down to be BFFs with the kind of woman who wastes time or attention on a fiancé or a brother or anyone else who enters your orbit.

On second thought, maybe Ingrid isn’t such a good friend to have. But once you’ve made her acquaintance, you’ll find it’s not that easy to break out of her grasp…

One of the intriguing things about Ingrid Goes West, which director Matt Spicer co-wrote with David Branson Smith, is finding out what will happen when someone sees through one of Ingrid’s various ruses or deceptions. Her newest muse, hip young photographer and Instagram lifestyle artist Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen, who starred in Silent House and plays Scarlet Witch in the Marvel cinematic universe). She winds up being a pretty easy mark for the movie’s resourceful, needy antiheroine.

But Taylor’s cunning brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen), immediately recognizes Ingrid as a fellow con artist and quickly figures out a way to exploit her insatiable hunger for Sloane’s affection. A desperate Ingrid enrolls her rather gullible landlord, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), in a reckless scheme to turn the tables on this would-be blackmailer — a caper that could have irreversible consequences.

Although the movie gins up a fair amount of suspense, its real strength is in its characters. Ingrid is an amoral, thoroughly broken person, but Plaza imbues her with such vulnerability and likability that I found it impossible to consider her an out-and-out villain. The object of Ingrid’s devotion craves adulation almost as much as Ingrid herself, but the vain, superficial Taylor doesn’t make nearly as much of an effort as Ingrid to deceive herself or anyone else. Indeed, Taylor’s innate enthusiasm for beautiful things and apparent lack of malice lends her a certain charm that her would-be best friend can’t quite muster.

Nicky, a hard-partying substance abuser who seemingly has no qualms about extortion, comes closer to the role of being a traditional villain, although he winds up seeming more congenial than he initially seems. Perhaps the most sympathetic character here is Dan, a dopey but fundamentally sweet Batman enthusiast (he claims to be writing a new Batman movie “on spec”) who rewards Ingrid with far more loyalty than she deserves.

But Ingrid, who self-medicates with social media, alcohol and money from her late mother’s estate, is almost bound to break ties with all those around her. (The movie leaves open the question of whether she’s a victim of mental illness, a bad upbringing, social media or some combination thereof.) As the story approaches a conclusion, she has, if you will, been left to her own devices. The ending, however, is surprisingly hopeful — although the viewer must conclude for her- or himself whether it really offers Ingrid a fresh start or whether it simply sets up a new web of relationships that Ingrid is going to bring crashing down around everyone’s heads. (A friend also suggested to me that the ending is a dream sequence, which raises intriguing possibilities.)

Ingrid Goes West is perhaps most interesting as a snapshot of our new digital age, wherein normal people try to present only their best, most alluring selves and companies pay social media stars to endorse brands while making such commercial liaisons look entirely natural and unforced. And even though few of us suffer from the major damage that warps Aubrey Plaza’s character, it raises a lot of questions about the nature of authenticity and the threats it faces in this modern world.

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