Ingrid Goes West is equal parts scathing social satire, horror movie, and character portrait. It’s self-aware enough to include a Single White Female joke, but it’s not the kind of jokey movie that winks at itself. Aubrey Plaza caps her stellar year with her best performance yet, turning her awkward energy into something dark and sad, making Ingrid into a character that is as pitiable as she is monstrous. She’s always a second too slow with her responses and her laughter is a beat behind everyone else’s, as Ingrid struggles to fit into the photo-ready life of Instagram star Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). Ingrid Goes West riffs on authenticity in an Insta-filtered world, art and commerce, and the intersection of digital and “real” life when we’re completely connected by smart phones and social media. But it’s never preachy and the humor, no matter what the target, is nothing less than razor-sharp.
In many ways, Ingrid reminds me of Fort Tilden, an equally blistering satire of twenty-something hipster life, which pegs Brooklyn in the same way Ingrid pegs Los Angeles. But Fort Tilden stars a pair of utterly detestable protagonists that we are never supposed to like, where Ingrid Goes West has a soft heart for Ingrid and Taylor and the people in their orbit, including Taylor’s artist husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell), and Ingrid’s landlord/boyfriend, Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.). Russell has been a consistent scene stealer since Everybody Wants Some!!, but O’Shea Jackson, Jr. is a revelation. He was impressive portraying his own father in Straight Outta Compton, but in Ingrid he proves he has serious chops, providing both comic relief and adding some depth mid-movie that begins shifting Ingrid into something darker and sadder than satire. (Russell and Jackson are so good together in one brief scene that it’s crazy if no one is pitching them on a buddy comedy already.)
There are many great jokes and visual gags in Ingrid—Ezra’s paintings include “Squad Goals” scrawled over a flea market painting of horses—but to label the film just a comedy is to sell short the characters and Ingrid’s journey to nowhere as she tries to copy Taylor’s life. Ingrid has no boundaries and a lemming’s social graces, which makes her both awkward and unsettling, and Taylor is a shallow poser who hasn’t actually read any of her favorite books. Together, they’re a nightmarish duo parroting “That’s so great,” and “I love you so much,” at one another in an endless loop. Ingrid is desperate for companionship, but all it takes to make Taylor her friend is an endless stream of vacuous praise and unconditional follower-ship. Taylor could not be a less worthy target for Ingrid’s affections.
But that doesn’t make Ingrid’s stalking palatable, and though Ingrid makes salient points about the falseness of Taylor’s life, the film does not equate being a shallow asshole with being a stalker who almost kills someone (there’s a kidnapping subplot that is too crazy to explain, but miraculously it totally works in context). The film gives Ingrid enough backstory to establish a sympathetic reason behind her action, but it never apologizes for her or asks for forgiveness on her behalf. (Ingrid gets so dark that at one point, it seems entirely possible the film will end with a murder-suicide.) It’s to the filmmakers’ credit, and Plaza’s pitch perfect performance, that while we understand Ingrid, and pity her, we’re never in a position to excuse her actions.
Ingrid Goes West is a satirical black comedy that, despite the made-for-mockery Instagram lifestyles it parodies, has a gooey warm center. It’s comedy with claws and heart, featuring an outstanding cast and a career-best performance from Aubrey Plaza (which is saying something given her work on Legion earlier this year). The satire is so pointed and the characters so well drawn, it’s as if Armando Iannucci turned from political humor to social observation, and while it’s cruelly on point, Ingrid Goes West is never anything less than human.