Similar to the dystopian television series Black Mirror (Charlie Brooker), Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer, 2017) is a sardonic take on millennials’ obsession with social media. Its protagonist Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) is an Instagram fanatic who feeds on illusions of closeness with the online glamor queens she follows. Feeling spurned when she is not invited to one of their picture-perfect weddings, she shows up with a can of mace and attacks the bride, landing herself in a psychiatric ward for a brief period.
In true noirish fashion, Ingrid emerges from her manic episode uncured of her Instagram addiction. Still craving the laminated promises of instant friendships, she finds a replacement for her lost object of online worship – the equally gorgeous and impossibly wonderful Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). The audience is caught between laughing and cringing as Ingrid proceeds to sculpt her existence around the Insta-queen’s – moving into a Venice Beach house on the same street, eating at the same cozy-chic lunch spots, buying the same purse, and reading the Norman Mailer and Joan Didion novels that Taylor quotes on her page to lend it that perfect tint of “profundity”.
But if everything about Ingrid’s online self is contrived, the same can be said for her idol. Behind Taylor’s dazzling virtual existence, Ingrid finds out that the “pearls of profundity” on her Instagram are taken from books she hasn’t even read. Taylor’s plans to buy the neighboring house and turn it into a Norman Mailer-inspired boutique called “Desert D’Or” are no more than a plagiarized fantasy, taken not from her favorite novel but from her husband Ezra’s. Behind her bohemian façade as a luxury brand photographer married to an emerging pop artist, Taylor’s only real full-time job is maintaining her Instagram page, while Ezra’s “creative process” involves taking other painters’ works and overlaying bright meaningless hashtags onto them.
So when Ingrid buys one of Ezra’s paintings, devours The Deer Park, and begins frequenting the “hallowed” places that appear on Taylor’s Instagram, it’s not as if she’s stealing any real identity. She’s appropriating from an existence which in itself is a set of shallow appropriations, curated to gleam with enviable authenticity – a Russian doll of affected personas. By the end of the film, the mirroring of Taylor and Ingrid has taken on a wholly ironic tone. It is no longer Taylor whom we see as Ingrid’s perfect and polished alter ego, but Ingrid who suggests the vacant desperate self that Taylor keeps hidden. Ingrid is like the Instagram star’s dark disturbed twin – a kind of shadow that’s (literally) stalking her and reminding her of the consummate fake she actually is.
It is Ingrid’s potential as a millennial anti-hero – her instinctive gift for detonating the staged perfection of Instagram moments with her flights of delirium – that makes the audience root for her. Another actress might have reduced Ingrid to a crude cartoon of a social media stalker, but Aubrey Plaza is brilliant, fashioning a character that is manic and manipulative, yet recognizably vulnerable. As outrageous as she can be, we sympathize with Ingrid’s struggle to fit in and feel accepted, and relate to her anxiety gazing upon the glistening windows of other people’s lives. The Instagrammable life she pursues might be wretchedly fake, but the loneliness and desperation at its core are not. After Taylor cuts her off, she uploads a video-confession to her page where she acknowledges the misery underlying her compulsive quest for validation. This flash of introspection and lucidity feels like it might be a turning point for Ingrid.
The end of Spicer’s film, however, leaves us wary that she will fall back on her Instagram dependence as swiftly as she did following her earlier stint in the hospital. Not long after Ingrid’s tragic moment of clarity, we see her scrolling through her phone, imbibing the likes and comments her video received, with an expression on her face that echoes the disturbing incurability of Kubrick’s protagonist in A Clockwork Orange. Like the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”, Ingrid Goes West gives us a protagonist who never quite wakes up from her nightmare of simulations, fated to choose followers over friends, instant adoration over real connections. The film also resonates with the technology-driven tensions of “Fifteen Million Merits” (Black Mirror), implying the erosion of authenticity, sanity, and meaningful rebellion in a world that is so hyper-mediated, even the rawest expressions of suffering are reabsorbed as mere performances.
Still, even with its cautionary tale about today’s virtual vortex, Spicer maintains that his film is not an indictment of Instagram and other online platforms, but an exploration of their collective anxieties. He hopes that Ingrid Goes West can also function as a simple “plea for authenticity” and inspire viewers “to be themselves on social media.”