Aubrey Plaza is a national treasure, but the movies still haven’t figured out what to do with her. Ingrid Goes West comes close, though, with its twisted, of-the-moment tale of an Instagram stalker who infiltrates the personal life of a social media celebrity. But for all its many virtues, it doesn’t quite take full advantage of its star’s dark, unpredictable energy. It’s ultimately too sweet, too much of a bouncy Indiewood quirk-fest to do right by her sublime strangeness.
Plaza plays Ingrid, whom we meet as she stomps furiously into the wedding of what appears to be a friend, and then wreaks unholy hell by macing the bride. (This is a promising start.) Turns out that Ingrid is yet another person who mistook social media interactions for real-life friendship, and that opening incident has landed her in an institution. Released from the hospital, and blocked by the woman she had previously been obsessed with, she now fixates on the perfectly named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a beautiful neo-boho living her best life out on the West Coast, posting perfectly posed selfies and immaculate snapshots of branded products. Ingrid has found her next victim/BFF. Armed with a bag full of cash she’s inherited from her recently deceased mom, our girl heads to Los Angeles. Soon, she’s shopping where Taylor shops, getting the same haircut as Taylor, and trying to find a way to connect with her.
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It is to both director Matt Spicer and star Plaza’s credit that Ingrid, despite being basically psychotic, remains quite likable. It’s the Norman Bates effect: Ingrid’s vulnerability, her constant skirting of humiliation, puts us inside her head. We watch her actions in horror, and then we secretly root for her to succeed, sharing in her triumph as she insinuates herself into Taylor’s life, becoming inseparable with her and even getting some candid confessions out of Taylor’s top-knotted beardo art-bro husband (Wyatt Russell).
Throughout, Plaza is pretty much perfect. Her face can go from wide-eyed and lost to mysteriously knowing in an instant — an ideal canvas against which other characters can project their different responses to her. To some, Ingrid is a clueless weirdo; to others, she’s the cool girl who just gets them. Inside, she’s barely keeping it all together. The tension can be electrifying to watch, especially when it manifests itself as physical comedy.
Of course, Ingrid’s deceptions can’t last. And the contrived way that things unravel is one of several problems here. You keep waiting for the duplicities to pile on top of each other until they collapse. But there’s something artificial about the story’s ultimate direction, with the introduction of other characters even more messed up than Ingrid. It feels like a cheat, because she’s not undone by her own delusions — as if the filmmakers, having allowed us to identify with her, are now too afraid to fully pull the rug out from under her (and, by extension, us).
I was occasionally reminded of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, although Spicer’s film never quite reaches the humiliating heights of that earlier work. Still, it is entertaining, and often touching, even if it pulls back right when it should be going totally nuts. There’s a strong core of deeply perverse and caustic weirdness here that might have been fully indulged — it’d not only make for a less predictable, more exciting movie, it would also be a far more damning indictment of our own bonkers ideas about friendship, fame and fate in the digital age.