Aubrey Plaza plays a subtly great celebrity-stalker-BFF in Ingrid Goes West

By Liam Lacey

Ingrid Goes West, the debut film from Matt Spicer, is a digital-era stalker comedy in the tradition of King of Comedy.

In it, Aubrey Plaza plays a disturbed young woman from small-town Pennsylvania who becomes fixated with a Venice Beach-based Instagram star. Anchored by a Plaza's compellingly turn as sympathetic sociopath, this Sundance favorite explores the anxiety underlying the world of social media. 

 After an unfortunate pepper-spraying incident at a wedding and a spell in in psychiatric hospital, Ingrid takes her $60,000 inheritance from her recently-deceased mother and heads to Los Angeles in search of her Instagram idol, a photographer and brand influencer, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen).

 Elizabeth Olsen is an Instagram star, and Aubrey Plaza is her obsessive new "bestie"

Elizabeth Olsen is an Instagram star, and Aubrey Plaza is her obsessive new "bestie"

Taylor is a patrician-looking blonde who makes a living shilling for hipster eateries and clothing stores, accessorized by her "absurdly talented" friends, a small fuzzy dog and man-bun-wearing artist husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russelll).

Plaza, a cult darling best-known for her work as the sarcastic millennial in the TV series Parks and Recreation and for quirky movie roles (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Funny People) is an excellent actress and convincing stalker. In early scenes, sans make-up and in half-darkness, she stares at her laptop screen, her oval face and large wide-spaced saucer eyes evoke a praying mantis, looking at its next meal with fervent hunger. 

While the shallowness of social media relationships seems like a trite target, Ingrid Goes West captures something painfully authentic about the online marketplace, where personal worth is monitored on a fickle market of acceptances and rejections. 

 After reaching Venice Beach, Ingrid quickly rents an expensive one-room apartment from a geeky, Batman-obsessed aspiring screenwriter andlord (O'Shea Jackson Jr., who played Ice-Cube in Straight Outta Compton).  Using Taylor's Instagram feed, she begins to stalk her prey's favorite salons, restaurants, and boutiques, and even manages to see her target in the flesh. Next, she stages a stunt with Taylor's dog to ingratiate herself with her idol.  The unsuspecting Taylor is initially flattered by her admiring clone and welcomes her into her world.

While Ingrid Goes West doesn't dig particularly deeply, it is sharp in depicting the world of the moderately privileged, self-serious "creative class" of West Coast wannabes and hangers-on, from their avocado-toast brunches and rosé-soaked backyard gatherings. A particularly good detail is Ezra's "art" -- 3-D hashtag phrases, painted on garage-sale nature prints.

The screenplay can be a bit on-the-nose in cataloguing stereotypical California shallowness: There are repeated references to two decades-old books of West Coast spiritual malaise -- Joan Didion's essay collection, The White Album, and Norman Mailer's  The Deer Park-- which suggest a level of self-awareness not otherwise apparent in this crowd's behaviour.

But the heartbeat of the film is Plaza's nimble performance -- the micro-second behind-the-beat inability to glibness, the stilted smile in the selfie and that feral alertness to threat in her watchful gaze. She's like a combination of a wall-flower and Venus Flytrap. The tension mounts as she burns through her pile of cash and crosses all kinds of lines - including absconding with her landlord's wheels for an all-night jaunt in the desert with her new bestie.

Of course, Taylor, a serial consumer of objects and people, soon begins cultivating a newer friendship -  a model with a huge Instagram following - leaving Ingrid to seethe on the sidelines.

 A more immediate threat comes from Taylor's brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen), who crashes at his sister's bungalow for a spell. A giggly, handsome b.s. artist who does too many drugs and likes talking about banging models and getting free airline tickets from strangers. The fact that Nicky quickly identifies Ingrid as a fellow social parasite is believable, but when he plays detective and then blackmails her, he shows a level of cunning beyond his character's skill set. 

Although Ingrid Goes West won a screenwriting award at Sundance last January, it has a few more false notes, especially in its ironic shoulder-shrug of an ending. What remains vivid is Plaza's tortured, funny performance. What's bothersome, in retrospect, is the script's lack of generosity to other characters who remain dick-ish and one-dimensional in the face of her obvious mental illness. Even super-artificial people deserve a little more empathy than this. 

Ingrid Goes West. Directed by Matt Spicer. Written by Matt Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, Wyatt Russell. Ingrid Goes West can be seen at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas, 


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Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather