Ingrid Goes West (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is a challenge to pull off dark comedy with people’s unhealthy obsession with social media being the subject to be prodded, but “Ingrid Goes West” manages to excel at it because it knows what it does not want to become. Credit goes to writers David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer for being aware that in order for black comedy to work, the story must have a dramatic core, not just parading a series of vignettes in which viewers must simply recognize the joke on the surface without looking within and asking what it is telling us or, even better, how it is criticizing us and how effectively. After all, movies function as a mirror of our society. Had the film been written less sharply, the ultimate joke could have been itself—being just another part of the idea or concept it wishes to skewer.
It is obvious that the screenwriters wish to communicate that there is a sickness in our modern society that cannot be solved by prayer or medicine. Ingrid is a representation of this ailment and the character is played with wonderful electric energy by Aubrey Plaza. Those saucer eyes command the screen with manic intensity. She dares you to watch her to the point where you feel uncomfortable. We stare at the screen as Ingrid prostitutes her worth.
As a comic who is aware of the importance of subtlety, even in a comedy, Plaza is in full control of every little emotion obsessive Ingrid must convey, whether she is looking at her phone for the latest evanescent trend or looking through a person because her mind is somewhere out there in the dreamscape of cyberspace. The titular character is fascinating because although she has convinced herself that she wants interesting experiences, it is ironic that she is rarely in the present moment. What is an interesting experience but a person being fully present with the very activity or person with which she is involved?
The most accessible level of comedy in the film involves Ingrid stalking an Instagram “star” named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). While the situation likens that of a sitcom, Plaza and Olsen elevate the material when their characters interact. Plaza and Olsen trust that the viewers will be entertained by the situation and so they choose not to always exaggerate a line or how it is delivered. The quieter moments between them are surprisingly alluring… and yet somewhere in the back of our minds we know or suspect that their connection isn’t real since time and again both characters show, by action, that they are false. How do we connect completely with characters who appear unable to be honest with themselves?
But I admired the more dramatic moments even when these verge on silliness. Director Matt Spicer ensures that, without them, Ingrid would have been a one-note joke, artificial, robotic, detestable. I found it a strange feeling that even though Ingrid needs serious help, I still cared about her. I wished her happiness, to find a way to not get involved in one-sided friendships. In order words, the material has touched upon something real. That is, we all know how it feels like to be lonely sometimes. It’s just that some of us are lucky enough to recognize, or learn, that maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be lonely sometimes because it gives us the opportunity to focus our energy, to weigh what’s important, and to plan our next action. Ordinary comedies do not bother with the more difficult emotions or states of mind.