Aubrey Plaza’s latest, Ingrid Goes West, is probably not the comedy you’re expecting. Last April, NEON dropped an edgy red-band trailer that showed Plaza, furious, streaked with tears and running mascara, clad in a hoodie and a rumpled bridesmaids dress charging toward a picture-perfect blonde bride who’d been religiously hashtagging and instagramming her special day. As they lock eyes, Ingrid howls with rage, “Thanks for inviting me, you fucking cunt!” And then maces the bride in the face.
It’s a darkly comic moment that the trailer bleeds into snippets of sex scenes, smoking, and Plaza’s signature smirks to suggest Ingrid Goes West will be a campy romp of female revenge in the vein of Serial Mom, She-Devil, or Death Becomes Her. But instead, what unfolds in Matt Spicer’s directorial debut is a more grounded, yet still deeply dark comedy that aims for scathing social media satire, but comes off sleepily superficial.
The film begins as the trailer does, that cold open of obsession and assault. From there, Ingrid is humbled by a required institution stint. When she comes out, she’s friendless, shuffling around the house she shared with her recently deceased mother, and desperate to find a path to something, anything better than this isolation. She discovers it in the Instagram account of a beautiful Bohemian blonde. Living it up in Los Angeles, Taylor Sloane’s (Elizabeth Olsen) page is an explosion of cool and color, designer purses and avocado toast. Her life seems #perfect. So when this total—but totally chic—stranger casually replies to Ingrid’s comment with a mention of “next time you’re in LA,” the lonely anti-heroine stuffs her inheritance into a ratty backpack and hightails it to California.
Religiously checking Taylor’s page, Ingrid stalks her favorite restaurant, salon, and stores, hoping to cross paths with her. Along the way, she indulges in snapshot-friendly (but inedible) food, dyes her hair a jarring blonde that clashes with Plaza’s pale complexion, and bungles a could-be meet-cute. Desperate, Ingrid gets creative, and kidnaps Taylor’s muse, her dog Rothko. No. No harm will come to the dog. But this early beat reinstates that Ingrid is unwell. Turning a screw that’ll pinch your gut as you watch her wind her way deeper and deeper into Taylor’s life.
Ingrid is living for the likes. She scours social media for the things she believes she must acquire to finally be somebody worth liking. She drops big cash to Taylor’s aspiring painter husband to buy “found art” (read: pre-existing painting of horses running) that he’s scrawled “#SquadGoals” across. She fucks a neighbor to claim him as a boyfriend. She follows Taylor to boutique openings and brunches like a fawning puppy. But all the while, Plaza’s eyes—quivering pools of bottomless need—remind us that this will never be enough.
And yet, it’s hard to care much what this means for Taylor. Of course, the Instagram-famous photographer’s life isn’t as #blessed as it seems. Taylor is in such a rush to call everything “the best,” or bail on friends to elbow-rub with barely celebs that she’s infuriating way before you realize she’s cribbing inspirational quotes from Goodreads instead of actually reading. All this phoniness makes it hard to know who to root for. Ingrid is unsettling, and a stalker tipping toward “Single White Female territory.” But beyond self-aggrandizing socialite, we don’t even know who Taylor really is. Instead, my sympathies turned toward the big-hearted stoner caught in the crosshairs.
Straight Outta Compton’s O’Shea Jackson Jr. brings a winsome zest to Danny Pinto, an aspiring screenwriter/Ingrid’s landlord, who has a deep love of weed and Batman. Because Ingrid thinks his interests are terribly off trend, she doesn’t bother to put on the cool girl facade with him. When he likes her anyway, she’s confused and repulsed. Still, this leads to a subplot that holds real promise, as Ingrid begins to explore what can happen if she forgets how her life looks and just lives it. It also leads to a pretty kinky seduction scene where she sports a crop top, Catwoman mask, and big white panties while teasing him, “Gotham needs you!”
But Ingrid’s journey to self-discovery is derailed when Taylor’s coke-head bro of a brother Nicky shows up. Brawny, blond, and brandishing a manic, menacing smile, Billy Magnussen looks like Malibu Ken brought to life by a generous line of cocaine. Nicky knows Ingrid’s a fraud from moment one. When he plans to unmask her, this comedy takes a shocking turn. But when it seems Ingrid has gone too far, the script by Spicer and David Branson Smith gives her a hasty out, then spirals into a self-pitying finale accented with social scorn, a string of increasingly alarming voicemail messages, and cringe-inducing climax that feels both predictable and rushed. To add insult to injury, the finale offers one last cheap gag that undercuts its (already wonky) look at self-esteem in favor of another blunt barb about the sins of social media.
The performances in Ingrid Goes West are stellar. Elizabeth Olsen elegantly plays the privileged LA girl whose life seems an advertisement for embroidered peasant tops and a hipster-approved brand of vodka. Wyatt Russell offers an easy affability as Taylor’s painter husband. But as things turn darker, his eyes glint with a suppressed pain that gives spark. Magnussen dazzles as a swaggering douchebag, and Jackson steals scenes with his shrugging confidence and believable nerd cred. But this is Plaza’s show.
While the film’s wonky tone made it an uneasy ride, Plaza drives with her eyes ever on the horizon. Even when she’s smiling broadly for a not-so-candid snapshot, there’s a thread of frantic fragility trembling beneath the surface. All this makes her outbursts of recriminations, revenge, and violence feel inevitable and poignantly human. But that damn final gag sends the nuanced performance out on a sitcom beat.
All in all, I’m conflicted over Ingrid Goes West. It is not at all the movie I imagined from its kinetic trailer. There’s something more overtly challenging in this tale of a mentally unstable young woman who’s turned to social media and its stars for personal fulfillment. Which I admire. But despite some incredible performances, the themes feel underworked and obvious, resting on pointing out problems like social media obsession and depression, without engaging in either in a meaningful way. #bummed