In Ingrid Goes West, every home, restaurant, and dog exists to be photographed. Bars and backyards glow in a bath of iPhone screens and decorative stringed lights, and the streets are dotted with high-concept vegan restaurants, their sidewalks lined with handsome sandwich boards. Instagram is the primary catalyst of Matt Spicer’s comedy of manners in the age of social media, but the film is smart enough to know that the last thing any of us need is another think piece about how the internet’s promise of global community has yielded a culture of alienation, obsession, and utter exhaustion. Instead, Ingrid Goes West excels at developing a world where the mores and aesthetic values of our timelines have already been realized in everyday life.
Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) knows how to consume this world, but she doesn’t know how to live in it. The film opens on her face, smeared with tears and makeup, frantically faving photos outside of a wedding she wasn’t invited to. The brash and funny act of violence that follows concludes Ingrid’s first friendship with an Instagram celebrity, and renders her a local pariah. After the death of her long-suffering mother, Ingrid has $60,000 but no friends or responsibilities. She sets her sights on Venice Beach after reading an Elle profile of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a #vanlife-style “entrepreneur” who’s made a name and a living for herself promoting a fashionably innocuous social media persona. For want of others to share the news with, Ingrid writes a letter about her “fresh start” to the woman whose wedding she just ruined.
Ingrid Goes West recalls Fear and Single White Female—two films right in the sweet spot of mid-’90s nostalgia that Ingrid’s peers love to recall—but is more indebted to Alexander Payne’s social comedies, which dwell in the backwash of the American dream. Ingrid’s hopes of reinvention are rooted in delusion and a possible mental illness (a sketchily drawn suggestion), and they’re perpetuated by the wealthy, unbothered lifestyle that Taylor effortlessly inhabits. After finding an apartment in Taylor’s neighborhood and befriending landlord Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a vaper and writer of unauthorized Batman screenplays, Ingrid sets to work sampling Taylor’s favorite things: her hairdresser, an upscale shop, and a plate of cauliflower samosas she promptly spits up. At home, Ingrid schemes and stresses while scarfing on french fries and Cheetos, like a Ruth Stoops who imagines a future for herself that’s equal parts Tracy Flick and Cher Horowitz. She’s a mess, but Plaza centers every one of Ingrid’s terrible decisions around the character’s thirst for connection. What’s sad about her isn’t that she wants a friend, but that she doesn’t care about being friends with anyone but the most popular girl in town.
Once Ingrid makes her way into Taylor’s orbit, the filmmakers do a beautiful job of placing cultural signifiers and modern etiquette in the landscape of the women’s budding friendship. The film grazes its more obvious targets (i.e., avocado toast) lightly, creating personality through an accumulation of unabashed trinkets of nostalgia (K-Ci & JoJo’s R&B smash “All My Life,” Joel Schumacher’s Batman films) and totems of cultural snobbery (Norman Mailer, Joan Didion). The characters that result are undeniably shallow, but they’re recognizable and sneakily fascinating. Taylor’s beau, Ezra (Wyatt Russell), is your boilerplate hipster Luddite who’s turned to the visual arts in order to figure out what kind of self he has to express; the results are predictably embarrassing, but Ezra’s primary motivation seems to be the fact that his girlfriend makes more money than he does. Taylor is, in fact, the only major breadwinner in the film, and Olsen’s impeccable vocal fry transmits a strange sort of authority. After Ingrid borrows Dan’s truck and crashes it, Taylor’s advice (“Just say, like, ’Look, I made a mistake,’ and I think he’ll understand”) is radiantly oblivious to a world where accidents can have consequences.
Though Taylor doesn’t have a squad or a gaggle of consultants, her similarities to her pop namesake are among a few nods to the Kardashian wing of the celebrity industrial complex. (“I miss the old Taylor,” Ezra says at one point in the film, gesturing toward Kanye West’s Life of Pablo.) The most prominent and irksome of these is Taylor’s brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen), an agent of chaos who’s part troll and part attention-hungry reality TV black sheep. Nicky’s antics frame an inevitable third-act pivot to violence and stalker-plot mechanics, steering Ingrid Goes West too far away from the innate tension between Taylor and Ingrid. Taylor’s bounty of barely deserved social capital fundamentally dooms their friendship, and it’s her studied vapidity that reveals the film’s appropriately shitty and depressing moral: Never be yourself if you’re unprepared for the world to judge you.