What’s a girl to do when she’s finished up her mental health treatment for cyberstalking a bride-to-be, sneaking into her wedding, and hitting her with a cloud of jealousy-fueled pepper spray? Go West, young woman. Specifically, to Los Angeles: land of opportunity, #nofilter-worthy sunsets, and Instagram influencers.
Aubrey Plaza stars in Ingrid Goes West as the title character, a disturbed twentysomething who can’t stop double-tapping. In the first few minutes of the movie, we see her full-on manic—wild-eyed, oily-faced, and being tackled when she graduates from cyberstalking to stalking IRL. Her time in rehab isn’t enough to cure her of her loneliness and obsessive tendencies or the bad reputation that now precedes her around town. When Ingrid comes across a magazine profile of social media star Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), whose pictures of her perfect brunches and craft cocktails have earned her several hundred thousand followers on Instagram, her next step is clear: She needs to move to L.A., reinvent herself using the money she recently inherited from her mother, and insinuate herself into Taylor’s life.
Though not a direct adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, the movie plays like a 2017 version of the psychological thriller, and not since Clueless took on Emma has a film so cleverly updated a pre-existing plot for the mores of the present day. (Ingrid pays tribute to Clueless, its sister in left-coast satire, in the form of a third-act Halloween costume.) Instagram slots so seamlessly into a story of charisma, glamour, envy, and duplicity that I only wish Patricia Highsmith had lived to write characters who could catfish each other. Doing a respectable job in her absence are screenwriters David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer (Spicer also directs), a pair who seem to understand the magic alchemy that makes Instagram both so appealing and so uncanny, a place where the modern version of Narcissus might get lost before he even realizes how many weeks or months or years back he’s scrolled.
Though Ingrid is a cautionary tale about social media, its “what if Instagram, but too much” story is not set in some near-future dystopia à la Black Mirror but our terrifying-enough present. It’s all too easy for Ingrid to start haunting the same cafés and stores her new crush does (thanks, tagging), to go to her salon and request her same haircut and color, and eventually to steal her dog so she can trick Taylor and her husband (Black Mirror alumnus Wyatt Russell, once again conveying a level of chill that could make even a man-bun look natural) into becoming her friends.
You sort of get why Ingrid would be so drawn to Taylor, a pretty girl with good taste who makes a living of just being her fabulous self. She’s living the millennial American dream. But it’s not long before the cracks in her carefully composed façade begin to show: her tendency toward hyperbole (“You’re my favorite person I’ve ever met,” she tells Ingrid after she makes her laugh one time), her husband’s grudging attitude toward the influencer life, her Gatsby-esque tendency to quote books she’s never read. Even Taylor’s deepest heart’s desire has the depth of a kiddie pool: She wants to open a hotel where everything in it is for sale, a version of her Instagram come to life. As the movie satirizes Ingrid’s social media addiction, it also satirizes the superficiality of Taylor’s picture-perfect lifestyle.
Watching people text and stare at screens and react to their phones sounds like the kind of thing that would be hard to make cinematic, but the movie does a serviceable job of toggling between real life and the walled garden of Instagram. Sometimes, as in the film’s opening shot, it displays, over an all-white background, one Instagram post, with the caption (emojis and all) rendered in voice-over, but most of the time we just see it reflected through Ingrid’s possessed eyes, ultra-alert to her phone’s every push notification. Branson Smith and Spicer prove particularly adept at nailing Instagram’s insta-grammar: They know when to deploy the prayer-hands emoji and when it’s time for the dancing twin girls one. The send-up of a certain kind of social media user is sharp without tipping into caricature: We can all recognize “happy to be sharing this day with all my favorite humans #blessed” as a wedding ’gram caption that’s both incredibly cloying and incredibly normal. In a world where all analog things only exist to be arranged into a composition, posted about, and tagged, the movie’s references succeed at being just right for the moment and demographic it seeks to portray: Taylor posts about her Clare V. bag, the exact clutch brand a chic Angeleno would carry (or so I’ve gathered from the blogs I read to keep informed of such things), and she’s also partial to the ’70s-ish vintage hardcover books you may have noticed having a mini-resurgence in your feeds, moreso for how they look than for the words inside.
Olsen is well-cast as someone who has both the right look to be believable as an influencer and the underlying intelligence to convey (and conceal) the many levels of performance involved in the enterprise. Plaza, meanwhile, is made to seem more like a striving ugly duckling than the hipster swan she is in reality. She plays Ingrid as a girl who’s trying to be carefree but can’t stop her eyes from getting shifty while she does it. And shifty gives way to all-out twitchy when Taylor’s brother Nicky arrives to call shenanigans on Ingrid’s whole act. With his entrance, the movie takes a turn for the sinister that earns the dark part of the dark comedy designation.
But there’s one person in this movie who’s all light, and that’s Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Ingrid’s landlord and love interest. Dan is a hardcore fanboy for Bruce Wayne (quirkily enough, particularly the Val Kilmer–starring Batman Forever rather than Christopher Nolan’s more recent reboots), a detail that’s touched on just enough to be sweet and relatable rather than annoying. When Ingrid brings him to a party, she begs him to talk about anything but Batman, because she doesn’t understand that having a genuine interest in anything, even a superhero, might be preferable to doing it all for the ’gram.
If you remember Jackson Jr. from Straight Outta Compton, get ready to see a new side of him here. The rest of the movie is dripping with cynicism, but watching Dan with Ingrid is just plain cute, a rom-com interlude about how there’s someone for everyone, even psycho stalkers. In fact, Dan is able to see past the psycho stalker to the pain at Ingrid’s core, and it’s one of the only hints the movie gives about what made Ingrid this way. Plaza has said in interviews that she sent Jackson Jr. a Twitter DM to reach out to him about taking on the role, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Dan part isn’t quite as swoon-worthy on the page as the actor makes him on screen: Jackson Jr. brings an easiness and likability to the role that makes you forgive the horrible things Ingrid has him do in pursuit of her fixation with Taylor—and lets you come out of the movie rooting for him to be her boyfriend. As ironic as it would be to leave a movie about social media obsession with a new social media obsession, it must be pointed out: Guys, he’s really charming on Instagram. Heart-eyes emoji.