Explore social media culture with dark satire 'Ingrid Goes West'

17 Nov 2017 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

5 mins
Ingrid Goes West
Ingrid Goes West

Staying safe online remains an incredibly pertinent issue, with the multitude of apps and their associated behaviours bringing alongside many positives a wealth of risks and dangers. American indie Ingrid Goes West is the directorial debut of Matt Spicer (who also co-wrote the film) and tackles the subject through dark comedy, posing provocative questions about the culture of social media.

Evoking Rupert Pupkin from Martin Scorsese's media satire The King of Comedy, protagonist Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) is a young woman living in Pennsylvania with obsessive tendencies. After a violent outburst leads to a brief stint in a psychiatric ward, upon her release she packs up and moves to Los Angeles where she begins to stalk her latest fixation: Instagram celebrity Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Ingrid then plays a cunning trick to engineer a meeting with her idol, upon which the two of them strike up a shallow friendship which masquerades as something much deeper. Unsurprisingly, their relationship mimics the trending topics that it's built on, burning bright and quick. For Taylor, everything is "the best!", until it isn't, with people proving no exception. This culminates in her threatening to move on to the newest shiny thing in her life, much to Ingrid's dismay.

The film's script displays a keen understanding of its young adult audience whilst gently mocking its subject. It recognises the nuanced difference the slightest modification of language can have and plays upon the over-thinking that goes along with it to good effect. These common, even shared, practices are presented as observational comedy, but the script pushes its humour to the next level through an added layer of satire of online personas. Ingrid Goes West is not merely a cautionary tale about the dangers of social media: its director acknowledges the benefits, claiming it "can connect us with one another and make us feel less alone in the world." But rather, it is warning, and a reminder, of how we portray ourselves; how we are always curating an idealised, airbrushed persona in the online world.

The film is not a call-to-arms to down our technological tools and revisit a more old-fashioned way of living. It recognises that, as with anything, social media has upsides and downsides, and not all of the negatives are necessarily avoidable. Instead, as with groundbreaking documentary Catfish, a stranger-than fiction-account of travelling down the virtual rabbit hole, Ingrid Goes West reminds us that the negatives exist, and that we shouldn't judge ourselves by, or compare ourselves to, an impossible (in fact imaginary) standard. Young people don't need to deny themselves access to social media, but they should be aware of its potential for dangerous activity and the distorted nature of reality it often presents.

The script's complexity is further evidenced through its two female lead characters, with neither one being more vilified or championed than the other. The premise may tempt us into thinking that Ingrid is simply unhinged; her actions are undoubtedly ill-advised, from dangerous driving to drug-taking, bad language to irresponsible money-management. Yet Taylor's behaviour is often equally damaging. Furthermore, Ingrid's past is explored, in a touching scene where she goes for drinks with her landlord. Here we discover the imprint that pain often leaves on individuals, and what seems to be a throwaway display of mental illness is suddenly understood as being a serious examination of personal wellbeing. This idea is similarly explored in another Aubrey Plaza vehicle, Safety Not Guaranteed, through an unreliable main character and our constantly evolving opinions towards him. These two films also hint at the role those around us have to play as enablers, and both were awarded the same prize at Sundance Film Festival as a result of their impressive scripts.

Also scrutinised is the film's primary setting, Los Angeles, a city which plays a crucial part in Ingrid's adventures: the poster's neon front, scrawled in glitzy italics, screams its name. L.A. is no stranger to this, taking a central role in a great many films over the years. These stories often take the form of either a Hollywood parody (The Player, for instance) or a noir-ish crime thriller (Nightcrawler), or contain elements of both, such as David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. The most apt comparison to be made in this regard is with Sofia Coppola's Beverly Hills-set The Bling Ring, another satirical story of young people succumbing to a particular kind of modern indulgence. But the comic flair of Ingrid Goes West gives it a better chance of striking a real chord with young audiences as an intelligent satirical skewing of social media culture. This film's lively score, composed by Jonathan Sadoff and Nick Thorburn, bounces along with an apparent jovial indie charm, yet occasionally swerves into an eerie territory which evokes the aforementioned thrillers, warning us of something darker lurking beneath the surface.

As social media becomes an increasing part of all our lives, it seems inevitable that cinema will have to respond and tell more stories of this nature. Building on the success of films such as The Social NetworkIngrid Goes West arrives as a timely and important contribution to this cultural conversation.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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