One of the more pleasantly terrifying films I saw at Sundance this year was director Matt Spicer’s debut feature Ingrid Goes West, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (U.S. Dramatic) for Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith. The film opens with the near-psychotic meltdown of Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), who was not invited to the wedding of a woman she believed was one of her best (online) friends. So she shows up at the wedding unannounced and uninvited and proceeds to cause a scary scene, and we quickly understand that we are dealing with a person who equates following someone on Facebook and bombarding them with messages and “likes” with the same level of intimacy as a real relationship. Ingrid is an absolute stalker, with so real sense of perspective.
While in a deep depressive state in the aftermath of the wedding incident, Ingrid begins to scan the internet for anyone who seems nice, and she stumbles upon lifestyle guru Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a vapid Lon Angeleno with a vibrant, much-liked Instagram account, who seems to do little more than recommend products, vacation spots and clothes, while also snapping shots of her artist boyfriend Ezra (Wyatt Russell) and cute dog. Taking a bagful of cash that her recently departed grandmother left her, Ingrid moves to L.A., rents an apartment from Dan (a great turn by Straight Outta Compton’s O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and begins to track down Taylor, finally “arranging” a meeting by kidnapping said dog and returning it. She refuses a reward, instead opting for friendship.
Plaza is nothing short of miraculous in this role, especially in light of the vastly different work we’re seen her do recently in The Little Hours and the FX series “Legion.” While we’ve certainly seen her play unpleasant characters in her career, Ingrid is an entirely different entity. And every time we think she’s going to do something creepy or irritating, she ends up doing something sweet and unexpected, and strangely enough, this newfound friendship seems to make her a better and stronger person. They take spontaneous road trips together, share secrets, and are perpetually joined at the hip for weeks on end. Don’t worry, Ingrid is still a bonafide freak, but what ends up happening is that her obsession about Taylor’s lifestyle ends up exposing what a shallow, phony person this L.A. hipster truly is. I realize that discovering that an empty-souled hipster might have found her way into L.A. is a bit of a shocker, but as the two spend more time together, Ingrid begins to spot flaws in her heroine.
The real threat to both the friendship and Ingrid’s sanity comes when Taylor’s leach of a brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen), enters the picture and ends up both moving in with Taylor and taking up all of the time she had been spending with Ingrid. He also manages to get ahold of Ingrid’s phone and immediately figures out just how much of a stalker she is. Rather than go right to his sister, he attempts to blackmail Ingrid for money, pushing her back over the edge and back into irrational thinking and acting.
Director Spicer has crafted a film that has no issues openly mocking not just the hopelessly vapid people whose phones are never more than six inches from their fingertips, but he also has a great deal of compassion for how social media junkies have completely distorted views of reality, friendship, and other elements that make up the important aspects of our lives. Ingrid has been created by technology in a way, and now the monster is looking to get some revenge on her creator. As strange as it sounds, we are always rooting for Ingrid to find a real friend in the real world and to snap out of her addiction to the virtual one, in the hope that she begins to see people for who they really are.
Ingrid Goes West is not afraid to get dark at times, nor it is worried about going silly at other moments. It’s an emotionally charged, ambitious work that gives Plaza a great deal of room to show this character’s unstable range of emotions. It’s easily the best work she’s ever done, and this is a great showcase for everyone involved.