Ingrid Goes West is a film at least partly about expectations, and so I think it’s only fair to warn you that what you’re reading may drift from review into rant in parts, but I do feel that what I may ramble about is key to my understanding of Ingrid Goes West.
So, upfront, Ingrid Goes West made me laugh a whole bunch. It’s an incredibly well written dark comedy that expertly mines it’s themes, characters, and plot for jokes that connect with the experience of its twenty-to-thirtysomething intended audience, even if some of those jokes might feel a little passé due to the ever increasing acceleration of the type of internet culture it’s playing off of and the fact that movies take time to make.
Along with FX’s Legion, this movie has firmly brought Aubrey Plaza past the point in her career where she’s just the sarcastic one from Parks and Recreation, and into legitimate actress who can sell me on a movie territory. If you have ever laughed at the ridiculousness of “influencer culture,” or cried yourself to sleep because your Facebook friends look like they’re way better at life then you are, or both, you will connect with something in this movie.
Ingrid Goes West is about Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), a young woman shaken by the recent death of her terminally ill mother, who, grasping for any semblance of purpose, begins stalking an Instagram influencer – Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olson). Obsessed with the nouveau-boho lifestyle Taylor shares on social media, Ingrid cashes out her $60,000 inheritance and makes the move to California to try to replicate that life for herself by forcibly becoming Taylor’s new best friend. Once in Venice Beach, she begins to copy Taylor’s life as seen through Instagram pictures, eventually worming her way into Taylor’s house by pretending to “rescue” Taylor’s dog, who she actually kidnapped. Taylor seems delighted by her new friend who thinks she’s perfect, eventually introducing Ingrid to her husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell) – a struggling artist whose work consists entirely of #hashtags written on top of found-paintings – and her brother, Nick (Billy Magnussen) – who is Patrick Bateman, if Patrick Bateman surfed. Ingrid and Taylor seem to make fast friends, but of course it’s only a matter of time before someone or something shatters the finely crafted illusion that their relationship is built on.
The movie namedrops Single White Female, and is firmly in that same genre of creepy stalker girl fare, but Ingrid is more than just a 25 year old thriller with a new splash of paint. The source of tension between Ingrid and Taylor – or rather Ingrid and the life that Ingrid wants for herself is less a matter of character than it is circumstance; and I think that scenes early in the movie that pathologize Ingrid by showing her in a mental intuition actually weaken our ability to sympathize with the protagonist, and blunts it’s satirical insights, because the rest of the movie works better – and seems to behave – under the premise that Ingrid’s obsession is not a product of brain chemistry, but of culture.
The amount of Ingrid’s inheritance is shown early in the film, and is clearly defined at just over $60,000, which is about $10,000 more than the median annual income of single Americans. In other words, it’s a lot of money to get all at once, but it’s far from a life-changing sum. And yet, changing her life is exactly what Ingrid aspires to do with it. She cashes out the money and sets off to California in order to buy this new life, and through the movie, the inheritance becomes a physical resource that we watch Ingrid burn through in her attempt to copy the life she sees Taylor leading on Instagram. From the moment we’re given that number and the first hints of what her new life costs – just to keep up appearances, and the movie is all about keeping up appearances – we are made unnervingly aware of how unsustainable this is.
A simple reading of how the movie tackles the subject of social media would be to state that Ingrid’s quest of copying Taylor’s life is doomed to fail because Taylor’s life itself is just a simulacra of the California lifestyle, but Ingrid Goes West demonstrates that Taylor’s life is real. Taylor and her inner circle are superficial and pretentious and silly – but they and their lives aren’t pretend. Taylor is making enough of a living off her social media advertising deals to afford exactly the sort of life she broadcasts. Her personality is exactly what you would imagine of anyone who unironically uses #blessed to describe avocado toast, but it isn’t a character she puts on just for her followers. And, regardless of what we may think about Taylor’s life and character, she is happy. And, for as long as she can keep it up, that lifestyle seems to make Ingrid happy, too. A club you have to pay dues to is still a type of community, and if almost 80 years of neo-liberalism has taught us anything, it’s that it is entirely possible to buy your way into belonging.
But Ingrid can’t afford it. An end of 2nd act development literally puts a price on Ingrid’s continued happiness that forces her back into a life of following rather than influencing. The sharpest satire in Ingrid Goes West might come from how it shines a light on the capital cost of popularity and influence. Personality-wise, Ingrid and Taylor aren’t actually that different, and if anything – Ingrid is the more sympathetic and likable one. But she’s not wealthy or (because of the magic of movie make-up acting on Aubrey Plaza), attractive enough to become an influencer. The film doesn’t lean on the tired trope of happiness not being something you can buy, instead proclaiming the opposite: happiness is something that only the rich can afford.