Sunday, May 19, 2024

Second Chance Sundays: ‘Ingrid Goes West’

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We’re in a weird place right now both personally and industry-wise. The COVID-19 has upended almost every system by revealing flaws and cracks we either knew existed or had stubbornly ignored.  While many of us face quarantine, it has become a time of reflection and in the case of film critics a time to get creative while Hollywood decides how to proceed. 

So here at The Fandomentals we present Second Chance Sundays and Whatever Wednesdays.  On Second Chance Sundays I will take a movie previously reviewed and take another crack at it. I’ll be looking at movies I loved, hated, or just felt meh about. I think Whatever Wednesdays speak for themselves. This is only temporary until everything settles down somewhat. 

Ingrid Goes West is a movie that in the three years since it was released has only grown more substantial and heartbreaking. Like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Co-writer and director Matt Spicer takes an empathetic look at a character in a desperate search for connection. 

Unlike those two films, Ingrid Goes West shows us a woman, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) who slowly succumbs to the darker hobgoblins of her psyche. Spicer and his co-writer David Branson Smith explores the painful need for validation and understanding which plagues the modern social media era. Even more startling is how immediate and relevant the film still is. 

Plaza’s Ingrid, while suffering from grief, loneliness, and managing a psychotic break is a deeply realized and relatable character. Unlike say, Arthur Fleck, Ingrid is allowed to be pitied by us without putting her on a pedestal. It helps that Spicer and Smith don’t just make Ingrid Goes West into an Aubrey Plaza one-woman show. 

The writers paint each character with nuance and complications. Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), the woman who Ingrid befriends, stalks, and eventually begins to terrorize, is not a saint. Unlike Ingrid, though, Taylor is honest about who she is, at least to the people around her. She delineates between Instagram Taylor and real-life Taylor.  

Ingrid Goes West explores the pitfalls and dangers of parasocial relationships in a way that shines a mirror at its audience. YouTubers, influencers, and other social media personalities have become like celebrities themselves. Yet, because social media is forever busy and needs constant feeding, it’s easy to forget that who someone is online is not who they are offline.  

Spicer also takes great pains to show us how exhausting, people like Ingrid are to people like Taylor. Part of why Taylor gravitates towards Ingrid is she doesn’t feel pressured to be “on” with her. The film slyly shows us that mental toll having to be “on” for so much can take on both people and their relationships. 

Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russel) is scruffy and sports a man bun. Neither of them is really hurting for money, their lifestyle seems just out of reach for Ingrid. Or it would be if she had any interest in anything other than being Taylor’s friend. 

Luckily her landlord Dan (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), in addition to being one of the most adorable Batman fans in cinematic history, is willing to let Ingrid’s payments slide. He’s in love with her after all. One of the great tragedies of Ingrid Goes West is Dan’s love for Ingrid. 

It is a love that can never be returned because Ingrid is bluntly put, a narcissist. But Dan’s pining for her is so heartbreaking if only because it allows him to believe Ingrid is capable of love. She manipulates him into helping her with schemes like getting rid of Taylor’s brother, Nicky (Billy Magnusson), or posing as her boyfriend so they can go to a party.  

Spicer makes sure every character in Ingrid Goes West is fully fleshed out and in their own way, while not saints, good people. Ingrid descends upon their life not as an avenging wraith but with nothing more than a selfish hunger for love. Except, it’s not really love she wants because that would require her to give something of herself. She wants their likes, their reposts, and their validation. 

None of this works if Plaza is anything less than stellar. The way she carries herself belies a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Plaza has this way of smiling without letting the smile reach her greatly expressive eyes. 

I mentioned Travis Bickle in the beginning and I was wrong, her Ingrid is much more a Rupert Pupkin. A child masquerading as an adult stunted both emotionally and psychologically. Plaza’s Ingrid is truly terrifying because we see aspects of ourselves in her real-world actions rooted in how we treat each other in the Twittersphere.  

Spicer, both in his script and in his direction, never let us off the hook by keeping us from empathizing Ingrid. Because we recognize her need to be loved and to be seen we recognize ourselves in her. Ingrid Goes West explores the dark heart of our modern technological existence as we demand validation and understanding but without also demanding the leg work of getting to know each other. 

Olsen’s Taylor is both a parody of what we think of as influencers as well as a woman trying to make some money so she and her husband can open up a business. Shallow, vapid, and sometimes mean, Taylor is nonetheless far from deserving of being terrorized. Her inability to see Ingrid for what she is is as tragic as Dan’s. Taylor just wants a friend-a real friend and all Ingrid wants is Taylor’s clout and followers. 

The script for Ingrid Goes West is bitingly sharp and is clever enough to understand that for all the hate we throw at influencers, more than almost any other job, they literally wouldn’t exist if we just ignored them. The aim is never to mock influencers more than to mock a certain type of person. Even if it does, Olsen’s grounded performance makes it impossible to not root for her. Unlike a more recent film, Spicer’s script empathizes but also condemns Ingrid as well.  

Ingrid is not the hero. Though Spicer’s script frames her as the hero, even giving her a hero’s ending, one that I thought out of sync the first time I watched it. But now I see it for what it is, a middle finger to the narrative fallacy of unearned redemption. At the time I missed this and thought it to be the only thing about the film that doesn’t work. 

The technical term for this is called “Sherman has his head up his ass”. Now, looking back on it the ending isn’t a bug, it’s the pitch-perfect and-indeed the point. We never learn. We are so busy wanting to redeem people we never ask them to actually put in the work. 

Ingrid is never interested in Taylor in any sense other than how Taylor makes her feel. Much like Taylor’s followers, Ingrid doesn’t really care much for the complicated prickly Taylor. Ingrid discovers that when Taylor moved to Los Angeles, she wasn’t cool, popular, or Insta-famous and assumes that means Taylor is a lie. 

Ingrid Goes West is shot almost in a dream state. Bryce Fortner’s camera switches effortlessly between shots that could easily be posted on someone’s twitter to shots that are framed slightly out of focus, with the cameras slightly swaying to clue us in on Ingrid’s fragile mental state. Fortner bathes the scenes in the warm Los Angeles sun giving everything a soft glow. Combined with the script this blend gives us a terse unsettling feeling. 

Everything looks pretty, but if you look closer you can feel something off. Ingrid Goes West is not only remarkably sure and direct in its aim it is also clear and deft in its critique. Spicer wisely understands that Ingrid is the main character, she is not the only character, giving the film a lived-in richly textured ambiance and setting.  

The final shot of the film is as perfect as it is simple. Ingrid Goes West is a near-perfect film that walks the tightrope of being funny, uncomfortable, deeply reflective, and insightful. It juggles all of this without ever missing a step.  

Spicer’s storytelling is weirdly haunting, perhaps because while it never condones or even likes Ingrid, it understands her. He also understands that while we may see ourselves in the other characters, we also see ourselves in Ingrid. That last part may be a key to why Ingrid Goes West is so haunting and disturbing. 

Next Week: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Image courtesy of Neon

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