O'Shea Jackson, Jr.
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
Ingrid Goes West
n 2015, Essena O’Neill had an emotional breakdown. Pre-collapse, O’Neill, who was a widely followed, intimidatingly beautiful Instagram model, had filled most of her feed with glamorous pics meant to exploit the whole “why can’t that be me?” social media phenomenon.
Almost every day, O’Neill posted self-capitalizing content that seemed too good to be true. Mornings would be ridden with images revolving around hashtagable meals and well-dressed pals. Afternoons would be spent lounging around sunny
beaches and exploring various locales. Evenings would be enlivened by outings that looked so elite, you wouldn't be surprised if a celebrity were at the party, too.
These scenarios, of course, were heightened through pictures so aesthetically pleasing and apparently effortless that you’d swear O’Neill had a professional photographer following her around day in and day out. Supplemented by ticklish emojis and hashtags – and an overall feeling of weightlessness – perpetuated was an idea that O’Neill was living something of a charmed, ideal life. Her existence did not seem to consist of much else besides pleasure and fun, and as such her most devoted followers wanted to live vicariously through her.
But by the fall of 2015, O’Neill couldn’t take it anymore. As revealed in a tear-stained vlog post (which has since been deleted), most of what people admired about her was revealed to be thoroughly manufactured. Assorted brands were paying O’Neill hefty sums to model their clothing and products. Photographs that seemed enviably nonchalant really took hours to shoot. And she had to essentially starve herself to get her toned, beach-ready body. Everything about her *brand* was more or less a fabrication. And the girl, only 19 at the time of her epiphany, couldn’t handle the pressures of appearing to be so flaw free.
Much of what O’Neill unveiled wasn’t altogether surprising. Anyone who’s tried to achieve that same level of photographic candidness knows it takes much more than a quick snapshot to get the product you’re looking for. Anyone following an Instagram “model” (whose now-omnipresence is baffling) is inherently aware that the clothes they’re saying are so cute and the foods they’re claiming are so delicious are probably only superior because a company’s wiring them thousands to say so. And it’s common knowledge that almost everyone is putting forth an idealized version of themselves on their social media accounts.
But O’Neill’s breakdown worked as a reminder that next to nothing displayed on Instagram, Facebook, etc., is actually rooted in reality. (Unless it’s a really shitty photo – then maybe it can be proven that what we’re seeing is genuinely off-the-cuff.) It was a testament to the idea that we’re all prone to damaging self-comparison. That we can tell ourselves that a friend’s supposedly wonderful day as shown on Facebook probably wasn’t as great as it looked but still feel inferior or envious. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s spent plenty of time stalking the premises of someone’s account and wondering why my life isn’t as interesting as theirs.
Matt Spicer's excellent first feature, Ingrid Goes West (2017), examines that incongruity between the fantasia and reality of social media. And the film, exhibiting an unostentatious brand of comedy, is remarkably applicable to our current culture without being overly sententious about it. It both satirizes the “this is the best” attitude demonstrated by social media personalities and analyzes the behind-the-scenes difficulties encountered by those being fake happy for a living.
It also, through its lead, compellingly studies the destructive effects of overconsumption – and how it ultimately isn’t worth it to invest so much of our time (and ourselves) in a pretend technological world.
In the film, a career-best Aubrey Plaza stars as Ingrid, a mentally unstable young woman reeling from the death of her mother. Pennsylvania-bound and friendless, Ingrid suffers from what we gather isn’t a whole lot unlike celebrity worship syndrome: time and time again, she’ll obsess over a social media figure’s presence with often dangerous results. (As the film opens, Ingrid maces a woman who didn’t invite her to her wedding – and the extent of their relationship was the handful of times the former commented on the latter’s various Instagram posts.)
A brief stay at a mental hospital leaves Ingrid temporarily stable. But then she becomes preoccupied with someone new: Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), a bubbly influencer who gives substance to her otherwise cookie-cutter Instagram model aesthetic by taking pics of The White Album by Joan Didion and putting a Walt Whitman quote in her bio.
Like almost everyone by whom Ingrid’s become captivated, Taylor seems to live an unblemished life. The follow button is hit immediately. But then Ingrid takes it a step further: with her $60,000 inheritance, she moves to Taylor’s native Los Angeles, dyes her hair blonde, and, surprisingly, successfully manages to insert herself into her newfound idol’s life.
Perhaps Ingrid Goes West doesn’t really go anywhere: it doesn’t do much more than wait for Ingrid’s placement in Taylor’s inner circle to wither away as soon as her motivations are discovered. But Spicer, along with his co-screenwriter David Branson Smith, uses this unforced naturalism to his benefit. By focusing less on the direction toward which the storyline is moving and instead emphasizing the inner-workings of these characters, we’re left with a topical commentary that leaves bruises.
Much time is invested in getting to know these individuals. The more we get acquainted with Ingrid, the more sympathetic she becomes. This is a woman whose alienation has been rubbed raw by the accessibility of social media accounts featuring people living the lives she so desperately wishes she could have herself. As we watch her interact with Taylor and co. (which includes Taylor’s Wyatt Russell-portrayed, pop artist husband and her Billy Magnussen-portrayed dick of a brother), we experience a deeply felt melancholy: this is perhaps the only time Ingrid has really known what it’s like to have a connection with anyone, really. Plaza’s sad-funny characterization uncovers a knack for performative humanity that the actress has not often harnessed in her gem-riddled career.
Taylor is similarly substantial, but I like the way Spicer doesn’t go with the obvious in his depiction of her. Most filmmakers would turn their attention away from Ingrid and instead try to scrape away all the layers off Taylor’s highly manufactured media guise. But Spicer keeps her distanced and almost ethereal, preferring to hint at her insecurities through Ingrid’s interactions and observations. (After some time is it revealed that Taylor once was a facile sorority stereotype, and through social media did she find something she was somewhat good at.) Olsen nails Taylor’s superficiality, but she takes it on in such a way that’s plausible rather than overarchingly mocking or caricatured. The juxtaposition between Ingrid and Taylor signifies the crevasse sitting between social media presentation and consumption: they’re never to be balanced, and will always be unhealthy the closer in proximity they are to one another.
Ultimately, though, I prefer Ingrid Goes West when it’s simply going for oddball comedy. The commentary is cutting, but there are certainly some issues with the way it links mental illness with Instagram addiction so closely. The comedy is more effective. The misadventures embarked upon make for some of the feature’s best sequences, and the observations made about the characters are funny in themselves. And the inclusion of a quirky love interest played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr. helps usher in some of the film’s best lines. (And helps cement Jackson, Jr.’s status as a star on the rise.)
Sometimes, then, we wish Ingrid Goes West were just a knockabout farce, not a black comedy with mental illness so haphazardly thrown into the mix. But what the movie does well, it does terrifically. Spicer has made a very promising – and very smart – directorial debut here. B+