‘Ingrid Goes West’ is a skin-crawlingly good dark comedy

By Nate Taskin

(Courtesy Official Ingrid Goes West Facebook Page)

Billed as a dark comedy, “Ingrid Goes West” presents a uniquely 21st century horror. It is a film that coincides perfectly with present day events while still managing to capture the abstract horror that junk post-YouTube gimmick films “Unfriended” and “Smiley” failed to catch—the discordance between one’s online persona and one’s real self.

Our titular protagonist (Aubrey Plaza) is, needless to say, a touch unhinged. The film’s opening moments show her crashing a friend’s wedding and getting maced in the face. After a stay in a mental hospital, we discover that Ingrid was never friends with this person at all. The extent of their relationship was simply a liked comment on Instagram that inspired Ingrid to pursue a one-sided, obsessive relationship with her.

Ingrid’s intense desire to feel cherished and adored draws her to “social media influencer” (i.e. one whose feed is immaculate) Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Taylor’s posts imply a utopian lifestyle that no real human being could attain. She posts her finest meals (#nofilter), glistening images of her lumbersexual husband (#thebigtomylittle) amongst her literary tastes which are curated to only the hippest audience (#joandidionsaiditbest).

Anyone with an Instagram account knows (I hope) that a profile only shows the best possible version of someone. There’s a reason why we post only the best selfie from the pre-game rather than the 6-8 (or 22) runners up. (And there’s definitely a reason why we don’t post the results when we drink too much at the pre-game.)

But the artificiality captivates Ingrid. Friendless and alone, Taylor’s perfect teeth and perfect taste mesmerize her. Inspired by a throwaway comment where Taylor recommends some Bay Area hipster cafe to her, Ingrid visits the bank to cash the $62,000 inheritance left by her recently deceased mother and heads out west to L.A. From Taylor’s perspective, her comment was an inconsequential post to one of her amorphous followers. From Ingrid’s perspective, it was a sign that the two are destined to be best friends for life (or #BFFLs, if you will).

Although Plaza’s comedic presence on shows like “Parks and Recreation” has always been well-respected, her talent at drawing upon deep-seated pain and pathos seems strangely underrated. After the release of this movie, hopefully the extent of her emotional range will be fully appreciated. If you thought her droopy-eyed expression led to some great deadpan humor, wait until you see how Plaza applies those Kubrick lamps when Ingrid has a nervous breakdown.

Those with a low tolerance for cringe comedy will be in agony throughout this film. Ingrid’s attempts to win over Taylor’s affection, like when they “accidentally” run into each other at a bookstore, are painful to sit through. Ingrid clings to the idea that human connections can be mustered from shared likes and mutual followers, and her inability to relate to people on a deeper level out of her fear of being “found out” as a fake leads her down some particularly squirmy roads.

Of course, while most of us would never have the audacity to kidnap someone’s dog just as an excuse to hang out with that person (once again, I HOPE), there is something painfully relatable about Ingrid’s plight. Call me neurotic, but I know I spend far too much time on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram carefully curating my content so that everyone sees only the best possible version of me.

The biggest aspiration is for people to know the “real me,” and the biggest fear is what happens when they find out what the actual “real me” looks like.  There is always that nagging fear that we may be discovered as the frauds that we feel we are. There’s a reason why top Instagram accounts show only lovely servings of Eggs Benedict posted through Matisse-themed filters. There’s a reason why we don’t see live-feeds of Gigi Hadid ugly-crying on the toilet.

The Online Persona is one of today’s contradictions. It exists outside the Authentic Self as a separate entity, and everyone follows an unspoken agreement that these two Selves should be seen as one, even when it’s clear that that alleged harmonization of two halves is a total lie. Nobody’s life can be as perfect as their profiles suggest. Part of Ingrid’s problem is that she is not clued in on that agreement.

Some Luddites out there might say that this affliction is a uniquely 21st century sickness—that classic  “dang millennials and their iPhones” line of attack—but I think it’s just a new manifestation of old human foibles. We all want acceptance and love from respected people we’ve never met—the kindness of strangers that Blanche Dubois memorably called for—but once confronted with the opportunity for real intimacy and human connection, we shirk away, fearful of what we may find and what others might find in us. “Ingrid Goes West” gives a modern update on an ancient pathology.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @nate_taskin