Taylor Sloane. How do I even begin to explain Taylor Sloane? She is California. She loves rosé and Diptyque candles (Old Montauk Highway, obviously). She’s #blessed. She calls Joshua Tree ‘J Tree’. She eats 80% of her meals at Grateful Café. Her boyfriend’s an artist with a beard and a topknot. She loves avocado toast, but she’s ironic about it, because she knows it’s, like, a cliché. If John Stamos met her on a plane, he approached her: because he already follows her on Instagram.
In Ingrid Goes West, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) is the influencer we all recognise from our social media feeds. Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) first encounters her in a glossy magazine, where she’s introduced as Your Newest Girl Crush. Minutes later, Ingrid (whose name perhaps punningly references her obsessive habit of hovering in the square grids of strangers’ Instagram profiles) is down the rabbit hole, scrolling through every cauliflower samosa and Clare V clutch Sloane has ever posted. So far, so familiar. Except Ingrid, after reading one too many #california posts, uses the $60,000 she’s been given in life insurance following her mother’s death to buy a plane ticket, rent an apartment, dye her hair blonde, and find Sloane in Venice Beach. Things quickly get cringeworthy, dark and very funny.
An updated Talented Mr Ripley or Single White Female, the majority of the film focuses on Ingrid’s attempts to manipulate everyone around her and ingratiate herself into Taylor’s breezy life, online and off. It pierces millennial tastemakers with piercing accuracy: Sloane’s boyfriend’s terrible art (lurid hashtags painted over found paintings) feels pitch perfect, while references to Joan Didion, Stephanie Dandler’s Sweetbitter, and cult venue Pappy and Harriet’s left me feeling personally attacked.
It also gets at how hollow building a personality around these tastes can be. Sloane’s greatest ambition is to open a shop that sells all these products (“just like my Instagram, but in real life”) called Desert D’Or (or maybe, as it sounds in her in mouth, Desert Door): a reference to Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park, a book Sloane insists she is “obsessed” with, but we later learn she’s never read. Perhaps it would have served as a helpful warning if she had: The Deer Park follows a gorgeous, blonde orphan who wins $14,000, goes west to California, and, feeling “like a spy or a fake”, befriends the glamorous people he meets, who are “like me, only many times smoother”. Instead, it takes Sloane a long time to cotton on to the fact that Ingrid has invented her personality specifically to seduce her, perhaps because their social climbing tactics differ only in terms of extremity.
Ingrid Goes West also feels innovative as a film that precisely captures our relationships with technology: from the physical relationships we have with our phones (characters absent-mindedly fiddle with their devices, scroll and double tap as they clean their teeth, repeatedly press the home button and scream with frustration when their batteries die) to the way we interact with each other through screens (agonising over the difference between “hahahaha”, “hehehe” or “ha ha ha” or staring at iMessage’s ellipsis bubble of suspense).
If this sounds like a pompous, didactic portrait of terrible, vapid people doing terrible, vapid things, in an online world that validates all things terrible and vapid, its not. Ingrid is not a symptom of Instagram-obsessed millennial society: she’s a vulnerable person grieving for her mother (her “best friend”) and failing to keep a grip on her mental health. While an early montage of a mental health facility might skirt too near tired stereotypes of the ‘crazy’, ‘hysterical’ woman, Plaza’s psychotic performance gives Ingrid layers of pained intensity that leave her balanced on a knife edge between comedy and tragedy at all times, laughing awkwardly at one moment and screaming “I BOUGHT ROSÉ” the next.
Isolated and alone, Ingrid is desperately searching for a short cut to intimacy: whether that’s by sinisterly engineering situations to make it look like she has more in common with someone than she really does, or something as simple as commenting “should we be best friends?” on a stranger’s picture of their brunch. But aren’t we all sometimes guilty of desperately forcing human connection when we feel lonely? Ingrid Goes West suggests we are: whether it’s Taylor flitting from one BFF to another in rapid succession, Ingrid’s landlord and love interest Dan letting Ingrid borrow his truck after just one week of knowing her, Taylor’s boyfriend Ezra venting to Ingrid about his relationship troubles because he has “no one to talk to”, or the waiter at “Gratitude Kitchen” who merrily introduces himself by asking Ingrid, “What’s your biggest emotional wound?” Ultimately, cheap, disposable relationships do nothing to cure any of these characters of their chronic insecurities.
The film doesn’t suggest that social media has made us this way. Instead, it looks at the different ways our internet usage reveals, picks at, and magnifies our existing, needling anxieties, like a loose thread that becomes a gaping hole in a ($500 Bella Freud) jumper. Instagram won’t make you behave like Ingrid. But it’s definitely not going to save you from yourself.
Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.