Ingrid Goes West is an original effort, but it suffers from lack of focus. It’s trying to be a social-commentary piece about the dangers of technology, addiction and identity. It’s also trying to be a drama, a love story, a black comedy, a thriller and a road-movie. Sometimes, when you try to fit that much into one piece, you lose your message in shuffle. That’s kind of what happens here. Ingrid Goes West is a cool idea, but that idea doesn’t come across well in the final product.
From the very beginning, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is delusional, manic and wholly unstable. The movie offers us a simple, uninvolved reason for this: she’s addicted to her phone. The idea is that if this girl just put her phone down, she could avoid all the trouble she gets into down the line. Obviously, she doesn’t do that. She moves to Los Angeles and spends $60,000 befriending a stranger she met on Instagram. In the process, Ingrid shirks all her other responsibilities, including her new boyfriend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), in favor of spending more time with Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). Eventually, she reaps what she sows and hits rock bottom and that’s where the movie finds its anomalous climax.
On paper, the story works pretty well, but it’s not executed carefully onscreen. Writer and director Matt Spicer doesn’t know when to be serious and when to be silly. On top of this, his characters aren’t very consistent. Spicer and his writing partner, David Branson-Smith, bend the personalities of their characters to meet the requirements of the plot. When we first meet Taylor she is a normal, west-coast socialite, but she changes faces whenever the writers need to inject some comedy into the script. In one scene, she snorts cocaine in a car with Ingrid as they speed down the highway in the dead of night. The next day, she’s back to being a healthy Instagram model. Another time, Ingrid tells Taylor that she performed a sexual favor for her boyfriend in exchange for use of his pickup truck and Taylor’s response is to tell Ingrid she loves her. This was a pretty bold thing for Ingrid to say, considering she is cardinally obsessed with how she comes across to her new friend. Maybe if she knew the bounds of Taylor’s sense of humor a little better, it would make sense, but the two are basically strangers. As it stands, Taylors enthusiastic response is just a way for the writers to keep a funny line in the script.
Similarly, for most of the film, Ezra is the level-headed, down-to-earth one. He’s not addicted to technology, he’s not on social media and he still uses a flip phone. He has a passion for art which further solidifies him as a grounded, normal person. Then, in one scene, we actually see his art and it’s a bunch of internet slogans graffitied onto oil paintings. Why did they do that? Why would they give the social-media-themed art to the one guy in the film who doesn’t know anything about technology? There’s a scene in the movie that takes place in an art gallery. They couldn’t find a way to stick that joke in there? I don’t have any problem with mixing comedy and drama, but it has to be done strategically. The writers of this film don’t care if they have to retouch their characters for the sake of shoehorning comic relief into an otherwise pretty dark screenplay. If your characters are that malleable, they can’t carry a story.
The movie does have a few funny moments. Most of them come from O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing the drug-dealer/landlord/aspiring-screenwriter who vapes and is obsessed with Batman. A few of them come from Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen, but they’re both a little too lost in playing “types” to bring any kind of levity to the table. Some would argue that they aren’t supposed to lighten the tension, but, if that’s true, then why are they being given so many “funny” lines? Spicer doesn’t know where the humor should end and the seriousness begin, which takes away the gravity from the heavy issues he chooses to discuss.
Most of the time the movie is just too overt. Shortly after Ingrid has her little trip to the hospital, she overhears a former acquaintance whispering into her phone. I don’t remember exactly what she says, but the jist of it is “I just saw Ingrid Thorburn, she’s like a total psycho, let’s not invite her to our slumber party!” In another scene when Taylor’s brother blackmails Ingrid over her secret obsession, he punctuates the pact with “I own you.” Subtlety runs rampant in this film.
There are a lot of moments where the story dips into new territories and then abandons them, giving us hints of conflict with no payoff. Taylor is planning to open a hotel one day and she hasn’t told Ezra about it, and she bonds with Ingrid over the revelation of this secret. Unfortunately, she never ends up telling Ezra, the two don’t resolve any of their intra-marriage animosity and, at the end, they are back to being a functional couple, having a halloween party and ejecting Ingrid because she’s the crazy one. Ingrid never even gets any closure for the death of her mother. In the beginning, this is what drives her. We might even guess that she hides her face in her phone because it numbs the pain of losing her mom. By the end, it’s a forgotten character detail, a previous circumstance that they needed to get the story off the ground.
Speaking of which, the ending may be the most puzzling part of this movie. Without revealing too much, it’s abrupt and doesn’t conclusively resolve the plot. It might even take place in purgatory, although I don’t think that’s how we’re supposed to interpret it. Fans will say it’s deep. Hermeneutists will say it’s a brave social statement. Maybe they’re both right, but I certainly didn’t get much out of it myself. For a movie that claims to be denouncing addictions to technology, it gave me very little motivation to actually put down my cell phone.