Early in Ingrid Goes West, a young woman on her way to Los Angeles conspicuously reads from Joan Didion’s collected essays on California titled The White Album.
The book is famous for the line: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Today we post these stories on Instagram or Facebook, becoming the unreliable narrators of our own lives, casting about for what Didion called “the imposition of a narrative line.”
Ingrid Goes West is a status update of these themes. Directed by Hatboro’s Matt Spicer, the movie is an inventive and shrewd satire of the way social media can be used to describe and distort the lives of users.
It’s overdue. Given the drastic changes this technology has wrought on culture and on the behavior of individuals, it’s a little weird that Hollywood hasn’t scrutinized the subject with more vigor.
The Social Network found a subtle layer of foundational hostility in the Facebook origins story, and there was an ill-fated adaptation of Dave Eggers’ The Circle earlier this year, but for the most part Hollywood has taken a chummy view of smart phones and social media — most often seen as trendy lifestyle accessories for hip, fashionable romcom characters.
The worm has turned recently, though.
Silicon Valley ex-pats are giving TED Talks on the way Facebook uses slot-machine psychology to feed click addictions. Psychiatrists are noting the link between increased social-media use and unhappiness, even mental-health problems.
It’s a wrinkle Ingrid Goes West seems to have anticipated. The movie’s title character (Wilmington’s Aubrey Plaza) is a young woman whose fragile mental health is established in the very first scene, crashing a wedding.
She is, to say the least, poorly equipped to maintain successful real-life friendships. So she heads for L.A. and Hollywood, where the boundaries of real life are more elastic, even more so as lives have moved online (the movie has amusing insight of the latest iterations of L.A. creative-class materialism).
Ingrid becomes enchanted with Instagram “influencer” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), following her on the web, and then just plain following her. The crafty, needy Ingrid successfully ingratiates herself with Taylor, via social media and through old-fashioned, analogue stalking techniques.
The kicker: Ingrid pursues this simulation of affection even as the real thing turns up in her life. Ingrid’s neighbor (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) has a crush on her, but Ingrid can only think to use her growing intimacy with him to further her phony friendship with Taylor.
Jackson, by the way, is somewhat of a revelation. He shows a confident, relaxed screen presence 180 degrees removed from the scowling impersonator of his real-life dad, Ice Cube, that we saw in Straight Out of Compton. And he has a knack for comedy — his character is a Batman fanatic, and a scene detailing a cosplay consummation with Ingrid is one of the year’s funniest.
As for Plaza, we already know she’s funny from her roles in “Parks and Recreation” and Safety Not Guaranteed. Here, she pushes bravely back against on her image as the shrugging slacker who doesn’t care about anything. Ingrid cares obsessively, completely, destructively.
The reckoning for all of this finds Plaza at her most honest and vulnerable — embodying, as Didion once wrote of herself, a woman who comes “to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.”
That lady was a pretty good writer.
You’d think she’d have more followers.
Ingrid Goes West
Directed by Matt Spicer. With Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O'Shea Jackson, Billy Magnussen and Pom Clementieff. Distributed by Neon.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.
Parents guide: R (language)
- Playing at: Area theaters