The first words of “Ingrid Goes West” are “Is this real? Hashtag no filter”, read from an aspirational Instagram caption. In this scathing social media satire, Aubrey Plaza wipes the filter off the edifying artifice of stage-managed and carefully constructed online stars.
“Ingrid Goes West” is in selected US theatres now, and screens at the London Film Festival on 7 October before opening in the UK on 17 November. There’re #nospoilers in this piece to start with, so it’s safe to read on if you haven’t seen the film.
“Parks and Recreation” star Aubrey Plaza plays Ingrid, a troubled young woman with a pathological case of FOMO. (For the uninitiated, that’s “fear of missing out.”) Obsessed with Instagram as her only source of human interaction, she begins the film trashing a wedding because she wasn’t invited. Then she fixates on Venice Beach-based online influencer Taylor Sloane, played by Elizabeth Olsen.
Desperate to be like Taylor, Ingrid overhauls her personality and heads to the coast to hang out in her target’s favourite boho boutiques and brunch spots. A touch of dognapping later and they become BFFs — but, like their avocado and sunset-obsessed Instagam feeds, it’s a superficial friendship that only looks good from the outside.
The film scores a few big laughs with its precise pastiche of #blessed Instagram feeds. Taylor and Ingrid entertain their followers with Joan Didion quotes and Rihanna lyrics copied and pasted magpie-like beneath comically stage-managed selfies. But as Ingrid inveigles her way into this artisanal brand-sponsored world, we peer behind the characters’ carefully constructed online personas. Even as she achieves her #squadgoals, it quickly becomes apparent to everyone but Ingrid that these new model celebrities are as artificial as she is.
Aubrey Plaza gives Ingrid a brittle vulnerability, her desperation and neediness threatening to spill through the cracks in her constructed persona. Plaza does so much with just a flash of her eyes or a tightening of her lips. Ingrid is a great character, sympathetic and scary and always magnetic in her unpredictability.
Ingrid’s Insta-friendly existence is soon threatened by Taylor’s all-or-nothing fickleness. Then Taylor’s brother shows up, played by Billy Magnussen as a Bret Easton Ellis character with perfect abs and willfully ignorant malignance. When he inevitably gets his hands on Ingrid’s phone, the film takes a Coen-esque lurch into violence as things fall apart for Ingrid.
It’s here that the film runs out of satirical steam. The conflict between odious brother and damaged Ingrid is pretty compelling, but when things get dark they don’t get dark enough to make this satire as savage as it could be. “Ingrid Goes West” isn’t quite as superficial as the social media stars it satirises, but it doesn’t say much new or insightful about them either.
OK, that’s the main part of the review done — now we need to talk about the ending. If you haven’t seen the film, turn back now, because major #spoilers coming right up:
At the end of the film, rejected by her new friends, Ingrid posts a tearful confessional video online and then tries to kill herself. Waking in hospital, she discovers the heartfelt video has finally made her an online sensation.
This is where the film struggles, when it takes on a more serious subject than social media silliness. Like the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why”, which was heavily criticised for glamorising a teenage character’s suicide, we’re shown a suicide attempt leading to a positive outcome.
Ingrid spends what she hopes will be her last moments surrounded by romantic candles, slipping serenely into a peaceful fade-out. The film leaves out the spasms, vomit, blood, desperate paramedics, stomach pumps and real, visceral trauma of a suicide attempt. It’s so exaggeratedly saccharine, I found myself wondering if Ingrid actually dies and is imagining this happy outcome as she slips into unconsciousness.
I’d hope viewers see some ambiguity in the ending, because if you take it at face value it seems to suggest trying to kill yourself is a painless exercise that will bring you everything you want.
If Ingrid’s online redemption is meant to be a blackly comic twist — she finally lets go of her quest for online validation, but in doing so finally achieves it — then it’s not a particularly savage satirical point. Because, horrifyingly, the reality of such situations is worse: When troubled souls like French teenager Océane Ebem take to social media to share their sorrows, well-wishers offering love and respect are matched by commenters screaming for them to kill themselves. Which is exactly what Océane Ebem did in May 2016, while people around the world watched live on Periscope, many of them encouraging her.
Ultimately, “Ingrid Goes West” is a fun look at a fairly specific type of social media superficiality, but the glib ending lets it down.
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