Comedies about mental illness are tough to pull off. How can you properly go for laughs while not being disrespectful? The key is to lean into the darkness of it all and embrace the messiness. “Ingrid Goes West” does this terrifically, with Aubrey Plaza turning in career best work in the process. The film won’t be for everyone, as it doesn’t pull any punches. Those able to cringe while laughing will be in for a treat, though. Plaza alone makes this one worth seeing, but the whole product stands out in the crowd. The month of August usually isn’t the best for new releases, but this one is top notch.
“Ingrid Goes West” is not just a comedy dealing with mental illness. It also savagely satirizes the social media age, specifically Instagram celebrities. Filmmaker Matt Spicer goes all in on showcasing how unsavory it all is. Almost all of us are guilty of some kind of social media slavery, though likely not to this extent. Spicer may create discomfort in some, seeing how closely it reflects their lives. Hopefully no character rings too true, but you’ll undoubtedly see someone you know here.
For Ingrid Thorburn (Plaza), life has been in a tailspin ever since her mother got sick. Now that she’s passed away, Ingrid is all alone. She searches for connections everywhere, often thinking she’s found them on social media. The objects of her affection might see it more as an obsession, especially when they’re barely aware of her presence. That’s shown in full force when Ingrid crashes a wedding. All alone and at the bottom of life, she’s desperate. Then, she comes across the account of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram star/brand influencer out in California with a perfectly curated life.
Taking the money she inherited from her mother, Ingrid heads west to Los Angeles, hoping to become friends with Taylor. She gets a place to stay, mostly due to the screenwriter and Batman-obsessed landlord Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) finding her attractive. Ingrid’s first chance to meet Taylor doesn’t go well, but then she decides a little dognapping is in order. As unhinged as this plan is, it begins to work. Taylor and her husband Ezra O’Keefe (Wyatt Russell) are so happy to have their pet back, they invite Ingrid for dinner. Against all odds, bonding begins. Ingrid has a history of confusing “likes” for actual relationships, but this is different.
Once accepted into Taylor’s inner circle, Ingrid thinks she’s found happiness. Sure, she’s changed her style to fit in with Taylor and is fabricating her entire existence, but that’s the price of friendship to her. Never mind the using and abusing of pushover Dan. Her happily ever after in Taylor’s world is threatened, however, when Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) drops into town. He’s suspicious of Ingrid and pretty unhinged in his own right. From there, things escalate for all involved.
Plaza has never been better than she is here in “Ingrid Goes West.” Her performance is equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious. Plaza has long been an underrated actress, but this is truly terrific work. She was outstanding in “About Alex” a few years back, but she’s even better here. In a just world, she’d get some Best Actress consideration. She never shies away from the mental illness being depicted, but her matter of fact comedic style is well served as well. Essentially, it’s the perfect role for the talented actress.
There are some top notch supporting turns here as well. Notably, Elizabeth Olsen continues her strong summer 2017 run, pairing this with “Wind River.” She ably portrays the kind of fake celebrity we know exists in the real world. As much as the Nicky character is problematic (more on that next), Billy Magnussen embraces it and dives right in. The issues there are not with his turn. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is delightful as perhaps the only good person in the picture. His comedic skills are actually rather top notch. Wyatt Russell is a bit underutilized, though he makes the most of his opportunities. It’s a small cast, though Pom Klementieff turns up as well. Plaza is best in show though, obviously.
As great as the Ingrid character is, the one real issue here is Nicky. He’s so off-putting and cartoonish, extended scenes with him become a problem. Especially when an attempted blackmail becomes a main subplot, you just wish he’d go away. Points to Spicer for giving him an excellent line (calling cocaine a “nose beer”), but other than that, he brings the picture down.
Co-writer/director Spicer embraces all of the awkwardness inherent in a premise like this. If his visuals, partnered with cinematographer Bryce Fortner, are on the unspectacular side, the vibe is pitch perfect. You’ll cringe on multiple occasions, and it won’t ever be by accident. The script he co-wrote with David Branson Smith never shies away from darkness, even when going for laughs. Aside from the Nicky character, Spicer and company make all the right moves. Spicer co-wrote “Flower,” which was the best thing to play at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, so he’s a talent to watch out for.
Overall, “Ingrid Goes West” is about as unique as black comedies get in 2017. If you’re not easily turned off by unlikable characters, this is one to seek out. It’s a timely film, one that will likely only get more timely as the years pass. Plaza is nomination worthy, though she probably won’t even sniff Oscar season. Still, make time for “Ingrid Goes West.” Insert social media pun about “liking” it here…
“Ingrid Goes West” is distributed by Neon and opens in theaters on August 11.