Throughout Ingrid Goes West, Ingrid Thorburn is glued to her phone. When the film opens, tears are running down her face as she maniacally likes a string of photos on Instagram. And near its end, the first words out of her mouth when she wakes up in a hospital are a frantic “Where’s my phone?” Ingrid is a social-media stalker, and she will dole out either punishment or gushing devotion to the people whose narratives she follows online. (The sobbing? Preceded her crashing a wedding and pepper-spraying the bride in the eyes.)
She’ll also do anything to be near the ones she hearts—including moving across the country. Ingrid (a subtly unhinged Aubrey Plaza) is recovering from her mother’s death and the bride’s failure to invite her to her big day (yet: like, like, like). Then she reads about an Instagram influencer named Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). Taylor’s a Barbie blonde photographer who lives in L.A. with her artist husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell). So when Ingrid discovers that her mom left her a sizable inheritance, she leaves her sorry existence behind and heads toward the City of Angels.
At least she tries to leave her sorry existence behind. Writer-director Matt Spicer’s debut is a relatively sharp satire of California (waiters ask, “How can I nourish you today?”), art (Ezra merely puts letters such as “WTF” over cheap paintings), and self-invented celebrities (it’s unclear how Taylor got so huge, but it turns her every move into an affect). But mostly it’s about loneliness, self-doubt, and the obsession social media can breed. Ingrid moves into Taylor’s neighborhood and steals her dog in order to literally get her foot in the door, and her girl crush is one of those flighty friendlies who loves everyone. So mission accomplished: They become BFFs.
This friendship is not entirely believable, which is one failing of the film. But Ingrid’s humiliating fixation is quite realistic. Sometimes it’s funny, such as when she tells herself to “just be cool” and then she’s anything but. But much of it is sociopathic, such as Ingrid taking photos of Taylor sleeping or knowingly keeping her landlord, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), from an important event because she won’t return his truck on time—Taylor’s cooing to do this or that as it gets later and later, and Ingrid must. Go. Along.
Then the situation gets very dark, instigated by Taylor’s asshat of a brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen). There’s violence and blackmail. And we see the emotional hole that Ingrid is living with when Dan tells her that he cares about her and she responds, “Why?” Plaza, who tends to play icily distant, sarcastic characters, brings out Ingrid’s damage with slumping body language and eyes that are sad instead of rolling. Your heart will break as you witness how troubled she is. And Olsen, also somewhat playing against type, is a terrific Californian who rides fakery to fame (the things she tells her fans she loves are often just favorites of her husband’s) and can toss her perfectly beach-wavy hair like an A-list movie star. Even the supporting characters are vividly shallow.
Besides Ingrid and Taylor’s friendship seeming forced, another of the film’s flaws is its abrupt end. Spicer gives the story a happy close, but you get maybe 30 seconds of it before the credits roll. It’s heartwarming and validating, but you want to see where it leads. If the director had played it right, Ingrid would have hightailed it home.
Ingrid Goes West opens Friday at Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic.