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Ingrid Goes West, starring Aubrey Plaza as an Instagram addict, is deliciously twisted

The dark comedy is great — and almost too real.

Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West
Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West

Ingrid Goes West is twisted and dark comedy — part addiction narrative, part stalker story — and yet it’s set in a world that’s almost pathologically cheery: the glossy, sunny, nourishing, superfood- and superlative-loving universe of Instagram celebrity.

And it’s (omg) kind of the best ever. #cinefabulous #blessed

Aubrey Plaza stars, brilliantly, as Ingrid, a woman with a serious addiction to Instagram’s lifestyle icons — mostly young women, “influencers” with millions of followers whose lives look perfectly styled and perpetually sunny and are always, always flanked by brunch. They’re the ones responsible for making “avocado toast” a synecdoche for “millennials” among cranks and pundits of a certain age.

But despite Ingrid Goes West’s spot-on take on that world, the best thing about the film is that it refuses to traffic in lazy buzzwords and easy skewering, particularly at the expense of young women. Instead, Ingrid Goes West conveys that behind every Instagram image and meltdown is a real person, with real insecurities, real feelings, and real problems. And it recognizes that living a life performed in public can be its own kind of self-deluding prison.

The movie doesn’t get sappy about that realization — this is no redemption story — but by being just a little hyperbolic in its premise, the movie gives us enough remove to ruefully recognize ourselves in its story.

Ingrid Goes West sets Aubrey Plaza on a wonky journey toward self-discovery

Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Ingrid (Plaza) is an intensely lonely 20-something woman with a verifiable Instagram addiction, probably an outcropping of some mental health issues (especially since the death of her mother), though it’s hard to tell whether her constant scrolling through images of other people’s beautiful lives is the symptom or the cause.

Then one night in the bath, she spots a magazine profile of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) — a blonde Angeleno with a gorgeous Instagram profile and an apparently perfect life, complete with artist husband named Ezra (Wyatt Russell) and dog named Rothko. Taylor quotes Didion and Hemingway, takes pictures at the beach and at parties, and owns what seems to be an unending supply of cut-off shorts and breezy maxi-sundresses.

Ingrid quickly follows Taylor’s account (and you can too!). She comments nervously one night on one of Taylor’s pictures, deleting and revising until she sounds just the right amount of breezy and cool. Taylor responds with the name of the restaurant and says to check it out the next time she’s in LA. And just like that, Ingrid’s hooked, cashing the $60,000 check she inherited from her mother and heading for the West Coast, determined to be Taylor Sloane’s bff.

Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West
Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West

Startlingly, she succeeds, through some sneaky means. After moving into an apartment rented by a Batman obsessive/aspiring screenwriter named Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), she haunts Taylor’s favorite breakfast spot, hair salon, clutch designer, and, eventually, her house. Then she pilfers Rothko so she can return him to Taylor and Ezra, who are overcome with gratefulness and ask her to come in for dinner. She goes into the bathroom and takes pictures of all of Taylor’s favorite toiletries.

A week later she borrows Dan’s truck because Taylor needs to pop up to her house in Joshua Tree. Taylor gets a mechanic to Instagram them along the way. Ingrid’s mission, it would seem, has succeeded.

Ingrid Goes West works because we can all feel how close we are to being cool

Ingrid Goes West is a black comedy, and part of the joke is that we’re in on it. Even if we don’t literally stalk the people we follow on Instagram, we still envy their lives and their stuff. It’s like reading a celebrity profile in a magazine: we do it because we want to be that person, whether they’re an athlete whose regimen we want to ape or a movie star whose choice of lunch salad is somehow intriguing.

The internet has made this much easier — for both the people who like the attention and the people who feel like they have no idea how to navigate the world and want to learn the tricks of living with minimal IRL embarrassment, maybe on YouTube or Instagram. They’re called “influencers” for a reason.

This isn’t new, of course, even on the internet. I have distinct memories, as a very uncool teenager, of obsessively reading the LiveJournals of girls who seemed to know how to talk and what to watch and how to think, like a WB show except real.

And part of the appeal for all of us is that the barrier to entry — that is, the ability to take part in the lives of our influencers — is so much lower for Instagram celebrities than in magazines. We can just comment. They might even comment back! We can buy the same stuff and do the same workouts and, yes, eat some mighty fine avocado toast and blend up some smoothie bowls. It feels accessible. It feels possible.

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West
Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West

Ingrid just takes it one step further than most people, trying to become the kind of person who would end up in one of Taylor’s Instagram posts — which means buying the right clutch, getting her hair lightened to the right shade, affecting the right vocal pattern, and bringing the right wine to the party.

Matt Spicer, who directed the film from a script he co-wrote with David Branson Smith, remarked after the film’s Sundance premiere in January that the two of them came up with the idea after having a conversation about how much they loved Instagram. That’s obvious. The film does a great job of setting up its universe quickly, illustrating what it’s like to feel an obsession with social media and deftly handling on-screen depiction of technology, which can sometimes feel gimmicky in less assured hands. And the film skewers the silliness of being a "social media star" without dismissing the reasons why a person might become one.

That said, it’s the impeccable comic timing of Plaza — who served as one of the film’s producers and main creative forces, lending extra credibility to its women-driven story — and Olsen that really makes Ingrid Goes West fly. A scene in which Olsen and Plaza sing Kaycee and Jojo’s 1997 hit “All My Life” — and the way Ingrid’s face telegraphs that she’s taking this song much differently than breezy Taylor — is wince-worthy comic gold.

Their chemistry is helped along by the outstanding Jackson Jr. — a truly inspired bit of casting, which happened, Plaza said in interviews, because she realized Jackson would be great for the part and sent him a DM on, of all things, Twitter. His comic timing and easy manner contrasted with Ingrid’s self-conscious weirdness provides a much-needed grounding to the story’s occasional kookiness.

Ingrid Goes West carefully locates comedy in tragedy, and the effect is thoroughly entertaining

At times, Ingrid Goes West reminded me of Welcome to Me, a weird little film in which Kristen Wiig plays a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery and spends it all on producing a surrealistic Oprah-style talk show all about herself. Ingrid Goes West is a little more broadly appealing — I loved Welcome to Me, but the comedy is so black it practically sucks matter out of the room — but both ride the tricky line of playing a woman’s mental health issues for both comedy and realism, which means the characters are unpredictable and still relatable, even to audience members who haven’t experienced the same thing.

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza appear in Ingrid Goes West by Matt Spicer, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West
Sundance Institute

Ingrid is an addict, and her slide down a slippery slope seems consciously modeled on films about other kinds of addictions. Tellingly, though, no obvious fix exists. You can’t just tell someone to go to rehab because they look at Instagram too much. That kind of hopelessness forms the film’s subtext, though it’s not exactly a critique of Instagram; it’s just reality. For a lot of people, Instagram is a place to escape the pitchforks and hellfire of Twitter and the boneheaded political arguments of Facebook. Many of my friends have called it the “happiest place on the internet.”

But not for everyone. In Ingrid Goes West, it feels inevitable from the start that it will all go very badly. Watching Ingrid’s pain as she experiences rejection is excruciating, even if the route toward that point is very funny. But even the movie’s conclusion is wickedly cheeky; admitting you’re not perfect before an audience of thousands of strangers might turn out to be its own form of Instagram perfection, right?

Ingrid Goes West opens in theaters on August 11.