I saw Ingrid Goes West for the first time a few months ago. After watching, I found myself unable to piece together a coherent, intelligent reaction — all I could think was, “Oh, man, this is sort of my life.” So I saw it again, with the hopes that watching Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) maniacally befriend an Instagram influencer for a second time would somehow erode the blockage preventing me from considering the film analytically, not emotionally. It didn’t.
Next to me, my friend, who I'd brought along to the screening, cried while watching Ingrid scroll through Instagram on the toilet, in front of the TV, awake in her dark bedroom. My friend pointed at herself. “It’s me,” she said. I could’ve said the same.
Ingrid Goes West isn’t a movie so much as it is a mirror, and neither of us loved seeing our behavior reflected back with such clarity.
No character in Ingrid Goes West is spared from criticism. While we empathize with Ingrid's loneliness following the loss of her mother, her decisions are undeniably unstable. At first, Taylor Sloan (Elizabeth Olsen), Instagram influencer extraordinaire, seems to be actually, miraculously genuine — as the film goes on, her veneer of kindness melts away and we see she’s the vacuous social climber we'd always suspected. Taylor's husband is a mediocre artist with an ugly superiority complex; her brother is an erratic narcissist with a penchant for blackmail.
But the person the film is hardest on is us, the audience, that specific subset of the population who understand intimately the universe in which Ingrid Goes West is set. The movie’s opening sequence is something only we could understand.
At the movie’s start, the screen is filled by an Instagram feed of photos from a wedding, one of those ceremonies deliberately designed to look good on Instagram. One hand in the moment and one hand clutching her phone, the bride packages her wedding day as proof she lives an enviable life. Once on Instagram, the photos’ significance is amplified to those who consider their lives inferior to this world of fairy lights and a rustic-chic furniture.
A bubbly voice reads aloud the photos’ captions, each written using the vocabulary of the internet — the bride is “#blessed.” We laughed aloud at every photo.
Likely, my grandmother — or someone of her generation — would watch this sequence and wonder when the movie was going to start, not realizing this funny gag is the movie. The dichotomy between real life and Instagram life established in the movie’s first moments will be tread and retread in every scene to come.
Compared to these shiny moments packaged in square frames, real life in Ingrid Goes West is raw and uncomfortable and not at all picturesque. A tearful Ingrid watches the bride’s feed unfold. Then, Ingrid proceeds to shatter the wedding's illusion in a shocking way. She arrives to the party and pepper sprays the bride, whom, we discover, she’d tried to befriend (a.k.a. stalk) earlier that year.
Ingrid believes that Instagram feeds represent a reality a person can actually enter by proximity, like one of those paintings Mario leaps into in Super Mario 64. By befriending an influencer, she believes the charmed life will be hers. Unlike the rest of us, who confine our stalking to our phones, she sets out to befriend the Instagram influencers in the flesh, and make real the Instagram illusion.
Following the incident at the wedding, Ingrid chooses a new person upon which to model her life: Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an L.A.-based influencer. Ingrid packs up, goes west, and through some skillful acts of manipulation, she actually accomplishes her goal. In no time, she and Taylor are getting brunch at the “right” places and confidently persuading gas station attendants in the California desert to lay on the pavement to get the optimal photo angle. #FriendshipGoals.
Ingrid expertly mimics Taylor's aesthetic choices. She buys an expensive lamp that’s absurdly out of place in her simple studio; she makes her boyfriend (O’Shea Jackson) switch out his baseball cap for a boating hat; she gets her hair dyed to match Taylor's. On the surface, she has the life of an influencer — but she's no happier than she was before. Her hypothesis is flawed: An Instagram following does not fulfillment make.
While Ingrid takes her pursuit of a photo-worthy life to a disturbing, Single White Female level, I related to her desperation for validity by way of accumulated likes. I, too, have deliberately worn outfits that would look good in pictures. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to remember arranging flat lays. I’ve stepped out of the moment so I could capture it for others to peruse, and then coveted others' more saturated, more beautiful moments. My friend has, too — hence the tears.
Ingrid Goes West never gives our protagonist a moment of enlightenment, during which she realizes social media is the source of all of her problems (spoiler: it’s not). I don’t expect that moment to arrive for me, either.
But thanks to Ingrid Goes West, the next time I go somewhere beautiful, I’m going to enjoy the moment for a while, before I filter the scenery through Lo-Fi (the best filter of them all), and pretend not to care about how many notifications light up my lock screen.
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