Sometimes social media is like a mental disease. Unconsciously, we inhabit a debilitating virtual world: neglecting face-to-face interactions, self-esteem, food, and sometimes sleep. Director and Screenwriter Matt Spicer made Ingrid Goes West to examine social media’s affect on mental health. It’s a unique idea, which surprisingly hasn’t been used much by other screenwriters. Unfortunately, in Spicer’s case, it’s as harmful as the social media he claims to lampoon.
The film opens with Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), on Instagram, habitually liking a bride’s wedding pictures with a tick that would make someone with OCD say, “Skip one.” Soon we find that the pictures she’s liking are happening in real time, as she’s parked outside the wedding. When the film is going well, we’re seeing moments like these, when the power from social media to live vicariously is uninhibited. However, Spicer doesn’t stay on this course. Instead, he chooses to link Ingrid’s social media usage with the death of her mother.
Upon her death, Ingrid inherits money from her mom, deciding to move to Los Angeles to begin a “new” life by stealing someone else’s, in this case, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram influencer.
The first half of the film is replete with punchlines about stalking, along with habitual lying by Ingrid that would make Nixon laugh with envy.
However, this is shaky ground for Spicer. Ingrid is mentally ill. Yet, as the audience, we’re meant to laugh at a person who’s mother has died and clearly has mental issues. As an example, in I, Tonya, Tonya Harding has clear problems with self-esteem, but the film rarely glorifies. In fact, it invites us to say that Harding needs help. Ingrid Goes West never extends such empathy. Instead, we’re meant to snicker as a mentally ill person crumbles in front of us. It’s not exactly the best place to mine for comedy gold, and quite frankly, it becomes stale ever so quickly.
To Spicer’s credit, as we discover that Taylor isn’t as perfect as her Instagram says she is, the narrative does shift. The film could have easily turned into a “don’t meet your heroes fest.” Instead, Spicer injects Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), giving Ingrid someone who cares about her (the real her). Jackson is a breath of fresh air in a drab film. He has some of the best punchlines, and his character’s Batman obsession is played to great effect. The dinner scene between him and Ingrid is the peak of the film, as the two characters reveal the graffiti behind their veneers.
However, Spicer bulldozes that imagery quicker than studios swerve diversity, and plugs in Nicky (Billy Magnussen), Taylor’s brother. Nicky is an easy nemesis for Ingrid, and progresses little from the white privilege toxic bro we meet in the first minute.
Nicky is one of the many examples of Spicer’s dependence on unlikely scenario after unlikely scenario. When Ingrid buys the house next to Taylor’s, a house Taylor has dreamed of buying for sometime, we’re expected to believe that Taylor is unaware of Ingrid’s purchase. This culminates in a final confrontation that’s forced, relying on domestic violence as a punchline, while feeding into the stereotype of women lying about said violence.
While Olsen and Plaza nail their roles, they’re undone by a shortsighted and harmful script. Honestly, if I didn’t have to watch this film for the Spirit Awards, I most likely would have turned it off at the one hour mark. Instead, I, and the rest of the audience are waiting around for Spicer to stop making mental illness jokes long enough to actually say something about mental illness. Spicer never gets at the heart of why we “need” social media. His observations are surface level, with the Titanic waiting below to be discovered. In fact, even when he does get serious about mental illness, he feeds the toxic cycle of glorifying suicide attempts (betraying a character in the process). His script often lacks the empathy needed for such a character, asking us to be as glib as the people he believes we are.
Instead, between the montage shots of Instagram filters, food, knickknacks, and meaningless objects, the film is as vacuous as the social media experience. The people examined by the film are as paper thin as the pixels that make the images on their phones, and have as much depth as an evaporated gully. Spicer could have taken a journey in any direction; instead, Ingrid is a spinning compass in a magnetic field of empathetic debris.
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