Let’s start by acknowledging the biggest irony regarding Matt Spicer’s social media satire, “Ingrid Goes West”: As soon as you see it, you’re probably going to post/text/tweet to your friends/family/followers, just to let them know how much you liked it.
And how could you not? Spicer and his co-writer, David Branson Smith, know you. They know all of us, with our perpetually typing fingers and updated emojis and Instagrammed avocado toast. (Don’t pretend you hate avocado toast just because it’s over.)
It wouldn’t be fair to say that twentysomething loner Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is an everywoman, since her story is, technically, a 21st century update on “Single White Female.” In the film’s introduction, we learn that she’s an emotionally damaged stalker who can’t tell the difference between being befriended and being “friended.”
But she’s also suffering, having recently lost her beloved mother. She’s not just isolated, but utterly alone. Every day she sits in her mom’s darkened house, burrowing into an online rabbit hole of beautiful people’s beautiful pictures. Her thumb is constantly moving, scrolling, clicking, liking. There’s a whole world out there, and she’s desperately trying to find a way to join it.
Granted, most people wouldn’t go to the same extremes Ingrid does. When she comes across the enviable Instagram posts of a willowy L.A. photographer named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), Ingrid uses her inheritance to impulsively move across the country.
She rents a room in Venice Beach from wannabe screenwriter Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr. of “Straight Outta Compton,” oozing charm) and engineers an “accidental” meet-cute with Taylor. Soon the two of them are BFFs, floating into gallery openings and getting high in Joshua Tree together. For a brief, shining moment, their very existence is a hashtag.
Any mom with a Facebook account could tell Ingrid that nobody really lives the way they post. But she buys right into the illusion, into all of Taylor’s effusive superlatives and of-the-moment passions. She trades fast food for vegan salads. She wears belted boho maxi dresses instead of sweatpants. And she totally believes Taylor when she off-handedly calls Ingrid her “favorite person ever.” So when a new friend — a hipster designer with lots of social media followers — catches Taylor’s interest, the cold-water shock of reality does not sit well with our deluded heroine.
Plaza deftly keeps us off balance throughout, daring us to relate to Ingrid even as we’re repelled by her. Her rage isn’t spurred by villainy so much as an alienation that feels almost inevitable. But it’s the impeccably cast Olsen who makes the sharpest points, by playing Taylor as a sort of flawlessly-curated hologram. She doesn’t need to actually read Didion or Emerson to post the appropriate pull quotes, and when she enthuses about her leopard-print Clare V. clutch, you can be sure she was paid to do so.
What’s most striking of all, though, is how fully invested she really is. She’s not only selling a faux lifestyle to her fans, but to herself as well. Real problems are pushed out of frame, swiftly replaced with buyable beauty. To quote her quoting everyone else quoting Jimmy Buffett, it’s always five o’clock in Taylor’s life. The worst thing you could ever call her, of course, is what she is to her very core: basic.
We don’t need Taylor’s name or initials to remind us that there are, in fact, real people with millions of real followers enacting the same game of aspirational #SquadGoals right this very minute. But while Spicer’s impressive debut is an undeniably timely film, it also taps into a timeless dilemma.
Because it’s 2017, Taylor is an #Instagoddess. But she might as well be a cheerleader, or a Mean Girl, or a Queen Bee, or any other eternally unattainable embodiment of repressive popularity. Her brother Nicky (an unsettling Billy Magnussen) would be considered a sociopathic monster anywhere else. But between his perfect abs, oversized personality, and the LA setting (plus the impossibly apt fact that Magnussen played Kato Kaelin in “American Crime Story”), he might as well be a reality producer’s dream.
Taylor’s struggling artist husband, the preposterously-named Ezra O’Keefe (Wyatt Russell), is defined primarily by his ostentatious Luddite stance and casual man-bun. So why are these people the epitome of cool? Why is Ingrid so desperate to impress near-strangers who are obscenely entitled and egregiously uninteresting at best?
It’s a good question, and one that most people could probably ask themselves at some point in their lives. Spicer is, of course, pointing out the absurdity of Kardashian Kulture. But really, who wouldn’t be tempted by Taylor’s world, where every blissful, politically-ignorant day is framed by gorgeous desert sunrises and firelit poolside parties?
And how quickly should we rush to judge Ingrid, for wanting to connect with this Pinterest-perfect fantasy? Does she deserve our contempt, or pity, or empathy? Before you decide, count how many seconds it takes to pull out your own phone once the movie ends and the lights come up.