If Sun Tzu were alive today, he’d be on Instagram, and his profile would probably read, “Keep your friends close and your followers closer.” Certainly, that advice might apply to social-media celebrity Taylor Sloane, whose phony online persona attracts a sad-sack stalker in Matt Spicer’s darkly comedic “Ingrid Goes West.” A semi-ironic, yet still-empathetic “Single White Female” for the Facebook generation, Spicer’s squirm-inducing directorial debut understands both the pleasures and frustrations of judging one’s worth via virtual connections. If positioned correctly, it’s the sort of timely satire that could click with younger audiences — and further bolster Aubrey Plaza’s value in the title role.
All Ingrid Thorburn wants is friends, and the only way she knows to make them is online, via apps such as Instagram, where the word has been rendered meaningless. Ingrid’s strategy is to identify the most fabulous person she can — judged via the carefully curated moments they choose to share with the world — and hope that cozying up to them in real life will make some of that happiness rub off on her. Its tragic, of course, but also relatable in an environment in which people judge their self-worth in “likes,” while coveting the clothes, meals, and grass-is-greener lifestyles of those who populate their feeds.
Still, most of us know better than to put too much stock in social media. Not Ingrid. In the opening scene, she follows her “friend” Charlotte’s wedding via Instagram, liking all her photos, then storms in with a can of pepper spray to assault the bride for failing to include her on the invite list. (Later, we learn that they were never friends at all. Ingrid simply read too much into a sympathetic comment the woman was kind enough to leave on one of her posts.)
After serving her time in a mental hospital, Ingrid starts to look for a new BFF, stumbling across an article about Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) in a glossy magazine. Taylor lives in Venice Beach, Calif., and her life is, like, totally glamorous, and the next thing we know, Ingrid is cashing in her inheritance and heading west to make a new friend — which she does first by visiting all Taylor’s favorite Los Angeles hot spots, and when that doesn’t work, by stealing her dog and then pretending to be the person who found it.
In true sociopath form, Ingrid ingratiates herself to Taylor, adapting her personality to flatter her new friend, then borrowing a truck for a day trip to Joshua Tree. She furnishes her apartment according to Taylor’s taste, snorts cocaine because Taylor does it, and even drops $1,200 for a lame Wayne White-like painting by her brooding hubby Ezra (Wyatt Russell), creating a new Instagram profile to chronicle her fabulous new lifestyle. And yet, the more time they spend together, the less special Taylor seems — not that Ingrid seems to notice.
She becomes predictably possessive, threatened when Taylor’s douchey brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen), drops in and immediately sees through Ingrid’s act. Meanwhile, a short week or so after gushing, “OMG, I love you! You’re my favorite person I’ve ever met!” Taylor begins to grow tired of Ingrid, ditching her for a visiting fashion model with, like, a million followers — and forcing Ingrid to make a real friend in the process, though the only other Angeleno she knows is her landlord, a pothead screenwriter with a weird Batman fixation (only the second role for O’Shea Jackson Jr., so great in “Straight Outta Compton,” but missing from the screen ever since).
Spicer could’ve gone any number of directions with his script, from a cynical “All About Eve”-style scenario, through which Ingrid learns from and eventually surpasses her idol, to the violent horror vibe of a movie like “The Fan,” where Taylor winds up in physical peril. Spicer goes dark, but in a way that violates whatever sense of reality was holding things together, without being quite crazy enough to send gay and/or camp-hungry audiences into ecstasy: He and co-writer David Branson Smith cook up a gimmick where Nicky hacks Ingrid’s phone and tries to extort her, lest he reveal to his sister the kind of psycho she’d mistaken for a friend.
It’s a standard device in Hollywood relationship movies that things can’t truly work until the deceptive party confesses whatever secret they’ve been hiding, but “Ingrid Goes West” only partway adheres to that formula. After all, Ingrid’s obsession is so extreme, there’s no way to get past it without involving the cops (which happened with Charlotte before, resulting in a restraining order). And yet, despite the stockpile of stalkery photos contained on Ingrid’s phone, this revelation somehow fails to connect with her sad, social-media-driven delusions. A more effective strategy might have been for Taylor to stumble across Ingrid’s new Instagram profile and realize how her new friend had been using her all along.
Still, Spicer’s movie shows a better understanding of the strange ways we allow social media to manipulate our emotions — or our emojis, for that matter — from the sad moments in which Ingrid sits alone at home, refreshing her feed for virtual validation, to the way she clings to Messenger’s talk-bubble ellipsis in anticipation of a much-needed incoming text.
Plaza’s tortured performance captures all of this, which is saying something for an actress whose blasé persona hinges on the fact that she can’t be bothered: Nobody plays ambivalence better, and yet, Plaza allows herself to seem vulnerable here. It’s just the thing “Ingrid Goes West” needs to cut through that thick-skin ironic veneer of contemporary Hollywood comedy. If only the movie didn’t cap off Ingrid’s sequence of extremely bad decisions by rewarding her most desperate act in the final scene. But that just goes to show you don’t have to “like” something for it to affect you, and Ingrid’s the kind of character who certainly makes an impact.