In a twenty-first century where many people live practically half their lives behind the veil of social media, it is natural, even unavoidable, to virtually orchestrate a slightly different persona than the one which physically exists in the real world. In our day-to-day lives, we have no computer screen to hide behind and no "delete" button to correct our screw-ups. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, however, we get to call the shots on what others see. Even if someone is suffering, he or she can post images and thoughts that signify the polar opposite, and none of that person's followers or friends are the wiser. Indeed, we tend to believe what we see, and this is certainly the case of Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza). Lonely and emotionally unstable, struggling to work her way out of the grief of losing her mother, Ingrid latches onto the idyllic Instagram presence of young L.A. photographer/social media celeb Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). With no job and plenty of money received from her late mom's estate, Ingrid moves cross-country to Taylor's neighborhood in the sun-dappled, palm-tree-laden Venice, CA. Through the powers of some old-fashioned stalking, her fantasy of befriending Taylor becomes a surreal reality. The closer she gets, however, the more the seams of Taylor's imperfect life begin to show, away from the picture-perfect photos, zen-like musings, and rampant emojis with which she populates her Instagram page. Her handle? The unsurprisingly perfect _welltaylored_
The attention-catching, deliciously uncomfortable feature debut of writer-director Matt Spicer, "Ingrid Goes West" is a perceptive film about the prickly nature of perception and the human need to feel accepted. On paper, Ingrid is close to a nightmare, first introduced crashing the wedding of a "friend" and making a scene in short order. Once in California and set up with her own Instagram account (ingridgoeswest
), she edges closer to Taylor by visiting her local haunts, trying to eat the health food she does, and immersing herself in the same books, like Joan Didion's "The White Album." And then she really oversteps her boundaries, stealing Taylor's dog and promptly answering the "Missing" flyer as a means of meeting her online idol.
All of this could easily play as creepy at best and insufferable at worst, but Aubrey Plaza (2016's "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
") turns Ingrid into a damaged, sympathetic original worthy of love and concern. In the best performance of her still-young career, Plaza strikes every note just right. Ingrid's actions can be frustrating, manipulative, and ultimately self-destructive. There is a blistering realism and vulnerability to Ingrid, though; never a caricature, she is undoubtedly in need of medical treatment but would much rather simply have the validation of others. Plaza's ability to earn laughs often seems effortless, but as she has demonstrated time and again in films such as 2013's "The To Do List
" and 2014's "Life After Beth
," she is more than capable of going deeper, of opening herself to the rawness and truth beneath the surface of a role. Here, as Ingrid, Plaza is heartbreaking.
In less astute hands, Taylor might have been thoroughly unlikable as well, but writer-director Matt Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith are fascinated by the complexities behind one's superficial façade. As terrifically played by Elizabeth Olsen (2016's "Captain America: Civil War
"), Taylor may be opportunistic, but she is neither flaky nor vacant. Indeed, she has ambitions and ideasher dream is to open a store in Jupiter Tree that would be a physical extension of her social media feeds, named Desert Door after Norman Mailer's "The Deer Park"and one senses that past her outward air of confidence is someone struggling to keep up appearances and unwilling to confront the problems existing in her own life. Olsen gives Taylor the near-ethereal charisma and easy-breezy SoCal vibe that anyone would want to be around while also finding the unsentimental poignancy underneath. In a warm and endearing supporting turn, O'Shea Jackson Jr. (2015's "Straight Outta Compton") gives an innate goodness to Ingrid's "Batman"-loving landlord Dan, an aspiring screenwriter unknowingly being used by Ingrid to cover up a lie told to Taylor and her artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell).
"Ingrid Goes West" is at once thoroughly entertaining and inventively shrewd, a dark comedy of tonally tricky irreverence. It's also sometimes squirm-inducing in the best way, masterfully diving head-first into Ingrid's psyche and her drive to be seen. Ingrid and Taylor aren't bad people. Far from it. They are complicated and imperfect like the rest of us, their downfall as friends in their mirror-image deceptions. Ingrid is dishonest with Taylor from moment one, presenting herself as the person she thinks Taylor would want to hang out with. Taylor, meanwhile, is far from the unblemished vision she presents herself as on Instagram, tweaking the truth to match the kind of beautiful ideal that garners followers. The zinger is, they do connect on a deeper level, each one finding, for a time, exactly the confidante they need. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, is ravishing and painful in equal measure, and the conclusion Spicer reaches is one of catharses both positive and bitter. "Ingrid Goes West" is beautiful and messy. Just like real life. Just as it should be.