The unnerving black comedy Ingrid Goes West proves that accomplished execution and performance can make a well trod storyline feel fresh and original. This tale of a social climbing stalker follows closely in the lineage of Observe and Report, Welcome to Me, The King of Comedy, The Cable Guy, and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels, and the only real difference is how co-writer and first time feature director Matt Spicer’s film uses social media obsession as a backdrop. It’s familiar, but no less effective.
After a stint in a mental hospital for obsessing over someone she followed on Instagram, Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) starts to fall into old habits almost immediately. Blocked by the woman she previously doted on, Ingrid moves onto her new social media woman crush, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a Southern California “influencer” and internet celebrity who seems to have the perfect #blessed life. With $60,000 in inheritance following the passing of her mother, Ingrid packs up and moves to Venice Beach, determined to become Taylor’s BFF by any means necessary.
Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith (who picked up the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance this year for their efforts here) tell Ingrid’s story strictly from their protagonist’s point of view. There isn’t a single scene in the film not glimpsed exclusively through Ingrid’s flawed, unhealthy perspective of friendship, consent, and ownership, making Ingrid Goes West a bit of a tough sit without squirming. While there are some thriller and horror movie elements that creep into the film’s framework, most of it is made to be comically cringe inducing. It’s the kind of film that viewers might want to watch through their fingers, not because of anything explicit that’s happening, but because the main character makes one feel uncomfortable.
The viewer knows almost immediately that Ingrid hasn’t been getting the mental health care that she needs, but the relatively normal and privileged Taylor and her struggling artist and social media averse husband (Wyatt Russell) don’t know that. Neither does her landlord, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr., stealing every scene and getting the film’s biggest laughs), a likable Batman Forever obsessed budding screenwriter with a bit of a crush on his tenant. These characters around Spicer’s lead are flawed, but good at heart, and Ingrid plays with their emotions for her own emotional gains. Like most stalkers, Ingrid uses underhanded tactics and starts to mimic every move of their target, but Ingrid has no concept of how imperfect Taylor’s life actually is. Every character in Ingrid Goes West is doing what they think is right, but Ingrid isn’t the only one misguided and delusional. She just happens to have the most dangerous delusions, and the object of her fixation is rather banal and bland. Ingrid might not know how to discern a real friend from a casual internet follower, but everyone brought into her orbit is equally confused about how personal relationships should work in what might be Spicer and Smith’s grandest and most eloquent bit of social commentary.
Ingrid’s complications roar to life with the unexpected arrival of Taylor’s hard partying, loathsome, reckless, blackmailing brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen, in his best performance to date), a character that’s instantly contemptible, but also the only person who doesn’t trust Ingrid as far as he can throw her. While this section of the film is most heavily and explicitly indebted to The Talented Mr. Ripley, it also showcases just how well Spicer has a handle on his characters and tone. Perhaps the film’s overall lack of narrative originality allows Spicer to make the best story he possibly can within his chosen framework.
Ingrid Goes West feels every bit like a debut feature, albeit a great one. Visually, Spicer doesn’t have to do much more than making sure every locked off camera angle could look credibly like an unfiltered Instragram snap, but this also takes the pressure off the narrative to never stretch to a breaking point. It always feels like the wheels could come off Spicer’s storyline at any moment, but by sticking to the basic tenets of dark comedy, it holds together. Ingrid Goes West has an easily discerned and traceable lineage, but it fits nicely alongside other similarly tinted films.
The film also allows Plaza further chances to break away from the “sarcastic girl” pigeonhole she found herself in at the start of her career. A talented performer often unfairly relegated to snarky, sassy alpha roles (because she’s admittedly so good at them she could do them in her sleep), Plaza balances Ingrid’s decidedly unglamorous balance of innocence, toughness, and internal suffering with great delicacy. At times, Plaza makes one want to reach out to Ingrid to show her what a real friend and a real conversation sounds and feels like. There’s a distinct undercurrent that Ingrid’s current situation isn’t her fault, but also a sense that she needs to hit absolute rock bottom before anything can get better.
And when the bottom finally hits, Spicer and his cast don’t pull any punches, sending things out on a somewhat predictable, but cleverly tweaked cliffhanger where viewers won’t know if things have worked out for the best or not. Ingrid Goes West turns out to not be a journey with a proper final destination, but one where characters travel to a crossroads that will allow to story to play on off screen. Ingrid Goes West will leave viewers grimacing throughout (much like this week’s equally woozy feeling thriller Good Time), and it won’t give them something they haven’t seen before, but it will also leave them with a lot to think about.
Ingrid Goes West opens in Toronto at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas, International Village in Vancouver, and in select Montreal theatres on Friday, August 18, 2017. It expands to more cities throughout the summer and early fall.
Check out the (restricted) trailer for Ingrid Goes West: