Ingrid Goes West is a barbed LA comedy for the Instagram age

The Matt Spicer picture’s greatest asset is its star and producer, Aubrey Plaza.

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Tragedy plus time equals comedy, but comedy plus time can look simply quaint. Watching LA Story in 1991, it was hilarious when Steve Martin ordered a half double-decaffeinated half-caf with a twist of lemon. Now that would qualify as one of the simpler items on any coffee shop menu.

Satirising fads and superficiality, especially the Californian sort, is practically an industry in itself, so the barbed new comedy Ingrid Goes West enters an already crowded marketplace. Los Angeles here is a land where the blowtorch is a kitchen essential and hosts apologise to their guests for not having shopped at the farmers’ market. A woman paid to feature products on her Instagram feed describes herself unironically as a photographer, and oversharing waiters ask: “How can I nourish you today?”

This is low-hanging fruit – low-hanging smashed avocado, to be precise. But no film in which the pages of Joan Didion’s The White Album are used as emergency toilet paper is entirely devoid of satirical bite.

The picture’s greatest asset is its star and producer, Aubrey Plaza, who has a name like a suburban shopping mall and a face like sarcasm personified: those seen-it-all eyes, that slack, sour mouth. She plays Ingrid Thorburn, an unstable and credulous young Pennsylvania woman who arrives in Los Angeles with the aim of befriending the minor Instagram celebrity Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen).

We have already seen how Ingrid’s previous social-media-inspired friendship turned out (it led to a spell in a mental institution) and there is no indication this one will be any different. Lit by the sallow glow of her mobile-phone screen, she agonises over whether to post a “hahaha”, a “hehe” or a “heh heh” beneath the latest photos, humble-brags and hashtags of Taylor’s apparently perfect life. The movie is shot fittingly in greying, even jaundiced tones, so that we seem to be gazing at the world through a retro Instagram filter.

Ingrid Goes West masquerades for a while as a kind of Talented Ms Ripley, with Ingrid ingratiating herself into Taylor’s life by flattery and subterfuge. (Single White Female gets a namecheck.) She dresses like her and eats at the same hipster cafe, though she hates the food and feasts on a consoling McDonald’s at home. She rescues Taylor’s missing pooch, not letting on that it was she who dognapped it in the first place.

When Taylor flutters her hand over her clavicle in mock tearfulness or says “You are my favourite person I’ve ever met!”, these are only the outward markers of a social group that places hyperbole and insincerity over nuance and depth. But to Ingrid, these exclamations are real. Suspense in the film comes primarily from how she will be exposed as the social interloper she is (or, in modern parlance, a basic bitch). Then it’s a question of how she will react when the facade slips.

The main character of the 1987 horror The Stepfather massacred his family when they disappointed him, moving on to find another one to fulfil his ideal of perfection. Ingrid Goes West isn’t willing to get quite that gruesome, though it offers a bleak ending, not dissimilar to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which foresees no escape from the distortion and solipsism that it has diagnosed.

Masks feature prominently in the film – balaclavas worn during an ambush, a white sheet for Halloween – but the matter of whether anyone even has a real face to show remains moot. The sanest character is Ingrid’s landlord and sometime boyfriend, Dan (the endearing O’Shea Jackson, Jr) who is as expressive with his vape as Lauren Bacall was with a cigarette. But even Dan pretends occasionally to be Batman so that, he explains, the bad things in his life don’t feel like they’re really happening to him.

Speeches like these are the screenwriting equivalents of hashtags, but the director Matt Spicer (who co-wrote the script with David Branson Smith) also has some smart visual ideas up his sleeve. In one scene he fills the screen with helium emoji balloons so that the innocuous smiley faces that populate social media appear to have burst out of the phone screen and to be rampaging sinisterly through our world. Which, of course, they are. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit