As online culture competes with the movies, it's also inspiring more and more of them. On the heels of the horror flick Friend Request, here's an indie comedy whose plot pivots around the use and misuse of Instagram. It may be tempting to say that Ingrid Goes West, the feature directorial debut of Matt Spicer, will be obsolete in a few years, but its themes are far older than the "like" button.
For the title character (Aubrey Plaza) of this dark farce, photo sharing is only a tool, just as live TV was only a tool for Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982). What both appear to crave is applause, and they will go to disturbing lengths to get it.
When we first meet Ingrid, she's assaulting a bride at her wedding — the culmination of an online obsession. Jobless, friendless and living in her late mother's home, Ingrid quickly finds a new fixation: Instagram celebrity Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), who embodies effortless LA chic. Soon Ingrid has moved to Venice Beach, transformed herself into Taylor's style twin and surreptitiously tailed her home.
With one bold move — abducting and then "finding" Taylor's dog — Ingrid successfully insinuates herself into her idol's life. As she becomes Taylor's IRL friend, her own follower list explodes. But how far will Ingrid go to make sure no one exposes her for the fraud she is?
Or is she? Where exactly do you draw the line between a clingy hanger-on and a stalker? Taylor, whom Olsen portrays with spot-on breezy fatuity, seems perfectly happy to bask in Ingrid's adoration, not seeing or caring that this new "friend" rarely exhibits a personality of her own.
Spicer and his cowriter, David Branson Smith, cleverly use Taylor and her man-bunned husband (Wyatt Russell) to satirize a certain glossy brand of hipster. Using their faux-boho lifestyle to sell corporate products, these two are all style, no substance. Amusingly self-involved, they find a counterpoint in Ingrid's amiably dorky landlord, Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), who likes her enough to become the unfortunate patsy in her schemes. We may appreciate his relative realness, but to Ingrid, he's just another tool.
Who is Ingrid, anyway, when she isn't infiltrating someone else's life? Is her ultimate goal fame, companionship or simply a stable identity? The film's rushed opening does frustratingly little to establish Ingrid's character, and subsequent scenes don't shed much light on her background.
So it's lucky that Plaza, best known for playing jaded, eye-rolling characters, shows impressive range here. She inhabits the fulsomely gushy persona that Ingrid adopts, while also fleshing out the character with flashes of self-awareness, suggesting that Ingrid never entirely buys what Taylor's Instagram is selling.
Yet Ingrid still seems to crave the artifice of Taylor's curated world — to need it as her reason for living. That's the central creepiness the movie never quite confronts, even as it rambles toward a twist reminiscent of the Scorsese film. Why is Ingrid's life so empty that she needs to suck her sense of self, vampirically, from others?
Ingrid Goes West covers territory similar to "Nosedive," the cruelly comical "Black Mirror" episode in which people's livelihoods depend on their social media rankings. Yet its satire never coheres with the same force. An abject eagerness to be "liked," the film shows, can make us into terrible people. But did technology shape Ingrid's falsity, or only give her the opportunity to boast #nofilter?