‘Ingrid Goes West’ is a dark, cutting satire of social media obsessives

Director Matt Spicer on his social media satire: "You’re not a person, you’re a commercial for a person."

CREDIT: NEON
CREDIT: NEON

Instagram, like sports fandom or one tequila shot too many, unearths from within even the saintliest among us our most insufferable selves. Among friends who follow one another, a mutually-assured forgiveness is granted; it’s hard to hate on the players when everyone’s in the same game. (Besides, why hate when you can just double-tap to like?) But to scroll through the backlit, painstakingly art-directed and set-dressed effortlessness that radiates from the average Instagram lifestyle star’s feed is to feel, as your eyeballs hum with that you’ve-stared-at-a-screen-too-long sizzle, both envy and revulsion roil inside you.

These women—and they are almost always women—exist at some otherworldly point on the time-space continuum when it is always brunch, magic hour, sunrise, and sunset simultaneously. It is never not breezy and glowy and amazing. Wealth and its source (which must be gainful employment of some kind; money doesn’t grow on avocado toast) is never directly addressed or displayed, but rather oozes from her every pore and shines off the surfaces of her just-so selected furnishings and outfits. And her hair is killer. Waves like the ocean swelling in the background, sun-kissed in a way that feels literal, as if the highlights were bestowed from the heavens.

Everyone knows that it’s all a filtered fiction. It’s a cliché to even point it out. But the images tantalize all the same, slick with the promise that every desirable intangible, be it happiness or contentment or even love, is actually for sale somewhere, and you—yes, you—can assemble a #blessed life from its attendant parts in the same way you might piece together a bookcase from Ikea.

If even grounded, rational people (that’s us, right???) can succumb to the allure of a professional-grade dream-selling machine that is a perfect Instagram feed, what does that mean for the unhinged? Meet Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), the friendless, desperate anti-heroine of Ingrid Goes West. Grief-stricken but flush with cash from the recent death of her mother and fresh out of a mental hospital due to a pepper-spraying incident, Ingrid discovers and quickly becomes fixated on the blissed-out brand of Instagram girl crush Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). Ingrid ingratiates herself into Taylor’s curated but hollow L.A. world, molding herself in Taylor’s image in a psychotic effort to earn a seat at Taylor’s proverbial lunch table. Ingrid is so hungry for validation she mistakes Taylor’s millennial-girl gushing of omigosh I love you!!!  for a genuine connection.

Just about everyone in Ingrid Goes West gets the cinematic side-eye from director Matt Spicer, who cowrote the dark comedy with David Branson Smith. Ingrid, our disturbed protagonist, is a pathological liar who literally lives out every colloquialism about social media: She follows, then she stalks. Taylor puts the “it” in “it girl,” more a collection of cool chick signifiers than three-dimensional human; having already commodified every aspect of her personal life, her greatest professional ambition is to open a boutique hotel where everything in it is for sale. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a failed artist whose attempts at commentary on his wife’s world—he takes reclaimed paintings and emblazons them with inane hashtag expressions like SQUAD GOALS—don’t sell. The only person you get the sense the movie doesn’t hate is Ingrid’s landlord-turned-love-interest, Dan (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.). Not coincidentally, he is the only person totally disinterested in Instagram stars and stalkers alike.

Spicer spoke with ThinkProgress about writing and directing Ingrid Goes West, the bizarre-yet-undeniable appeal of the Instagram celebrity, and why he thinks all of us have, at one point or another, engaged in nearly Ingrid-level behavior on social media.

It must feel very weird and meta to be talking about yourself and promoting yourself on social media in order to spread the word about your movie, which is a satire about self-promotion on social media.

The most meta part is that I barely had any followers on Twitter and Instagram, and now I have over 2000 followers on Instagram and people hitting me up. I’m not used to all the attention on social media. Usually I just post a picture of my dog. So that part’s been a little weird.

Which side of this relationship was the one that drew you in first: The person who is obsessed with looking at Instagram, or the person who is obsessed with being looked at?

I’ve usually experienced it as the voyeur. As a consumer of Instagram and influencer lifestyles, I was mostly familiar with what people were putting out there. And when Dave and I decided to write the movie, we started to look inward: What are our own behaviors that are stalker-esque, if not quite full stalker? And we tried to pour as much of that as possible into Ingrid.

What are our own behaviors that are stalker-esque, if not quite full stalker?

She is going to take it to the next level. I think most people, they take it right up to the line but don’t cross it. And this is about, what if somebody didn’t have that inner voice telling them not to do this? [If nothing was] holding them back? But I think most people have exhibited some kind of stalker-ish behavior, whether you’re following an ex, looking at their new boyfriend or girlfriend’s Instagram, doing deep dives. Whatever your version of that is, I think a lot of people in their most private moments have exhibited some pretty creepy behavior.

It’s really disturbing to think about the language of social media that we’ve normalized through use. You have “followers,” you “stalk” an ex. It’s very creepy if you pay attention to it.

That’s where our tagline came from. It doesn’t sound weird but in the context of the film, the idea of, “someone will follow you,” when taken literally, is creepy. In a way, I feel like social media has normalized behaviors that, if you were to exhibit them in whatever you would call it — real life? — in person-to-person interactions, they would be considered horribly creepy… It’s a fascinating world [of] technology, how it’s affecting our modern life. It’s something i’m constantly thinking about.

What do you make of the other side of that equation: The stalked, not the stalker? What’s your take on the rise of the Instagram star?

In a weird way, it’s almost the democratization of celebrity. Up until recently there was this very clear line between celebrities and normal people. And I think a lot of people wanted to cross over into that realm, but the line was very clean, and it was two separate realms. As a kid in high school, you didn’t have to think about the type of pressures a celebrity would have to think about in terms of, what am I wearing? What am I doing? Other than who is around in the immediate vicinity. But now I think it’s something that, when you could broadcast yourself to the world with just a tap of your finger, I think it’s opened up a lot of doors for people who otherwise wouldn’t be famous. Which is great. The diversity of voices and opinions that are available to be consumed by people that otherwise wouldn’t get to hear them is amazing and awesome.

But it’s also opened up the door for some random person to live the life of a celebrity and post videos and create a cult of personality around themselves. Now I feel like there’s this added pressure. We used to have to worry about being cool in high school, and now we have to worry about being cool in the world. And if I’m not cool, then I’m a loser. And that’s scary and terrifying. Middle school was horrifying enough as it was, without the added pressure of needing a social media presence. I’m fascinated by people who are able to make money off of it, by being themselves. And a part of me is jealous of that. I’m wishing I could tweet a picture of my brunch and get paid $10,000.

Even when you know that someone’s lifestyle is manufactured — and we all know, on some level, that nothing we see on Instagram is real, and in fact that everything “effortless” is a lot of work — there is still something so appealing about it to so many people, as consumers of that content. Why do you think that is?

That’s a good question. I think some people, I guess, are just really good at this. And I’ve noticed this throughout my life [with] people who are cool. We all know that everybody has problems, secrets, skeletons in their closet. But some people are just better at hiding it, better at spackling over the cracks in their facade. That’s something I’ve never really been quite good at. When I try to act cool, it makes me seem that much more uncool. As a person I’ve learned I’m much more successful when I lean into being authentic and put myself out there — which is obviously scary! And moments when I catch myself not being authentic, I feel embarrassed. But if the movie is advocating for anything, it’s advocating for authenticity. The Dan Pinto character was our attempt at showing somebody who is cool because they are themselves, they like what they like, and they don’t care whatever anybody else thinks. O’Shea, people come away saying he’s one of the biggest surprises of the film. His authenticity shines through with the character. He has this quality about him that is unapologetic. He likes what he likes, and he’s also cool.

How did you and your co-writer, who is also male, decide to center your film on two female characters? Was there something specific about the way women interact with social media that you wanted to explore?

Part of it is, my girlfriend is an actress, so she’s on Instagram and has a much larger following than I have. And Dave, my co-writer, his now-wife has a following from her job; she has a business she promotes on social media. Both of us [see]  how they deal with social media, and how different it is from how we do, and the pressures they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. I think when we were talking, initially, about the concept of the film, we toyed with, should the main character be a guy or a girl? And the reality is, it’s not the same. There’s just way more pressure on women than there is on men. In society, I feel like there’s this competitiveness between women, whether it’s for attention or a need to seem perfect, that doesn’t exist for men.

Ingrid commodifies Taylor and never tries to see her as a human… And Taylor commodifies herself and says, “I’m a brand, I’m not a person.” And the danger of doing that is you reduce yourself to a brand. You’re not a person, you’re a commercial for a person.

It felt like the male version of it, I think we’ve seen that before, with The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Cable Guy, Chuck and Buck. The female version had only been done where the stalker is portrayed like this psycho. It seems like there hasn’t been a version told from the stalker’s perspective and trying to humanize them with two women. Even though we knew it was going to be a challenge and we’d get the question later: Why are men writing roles for women? we were up for the challenge of saying, as two guys, there’s got to be some overlap here between men and women on a human level. We can find that authenticity and truth that anyone can relate to. and we relied on women around us, and Aubrey and Lizzie, to be our barometer for hitting the mark.

How have your feelings about social media evolved as you’ve worked on this movie?

I feel like it’s evolving every day. Every day I have a different opinion about it. It’s really this love/hate relationship. My struggle has been and continues to be the compulsiveness of it, and it’s something my girlfriend and I have talked about a lot. I check it compulsively, not thinking about it, just because I’m bored, not intentionally. And it’s just bad to do anything without intention. And doing anything compulsively is bad. I was so excited when the iPhone came out. This is the device of my dreams! The thing I always wanted as a kid. But it’s a be careful what you wish for situation.

It’s interesting to watch people you actually know craft their Instagram posts — which we’ve all seen our friends do in real life — and to see the side of their personalities that it brings out. It’s… not the best! But I think you just get a strange side of someone when you see the version of themselves that is consciously on display.

There becomes this performative aspect of it, and I totally agree. Especially in the political stuff that’s been happening over the last year, on both sides, has been very annoying. That virtue signaling. A lot of people trying to say, “I’m part of this club!” And it’s like, are you actually doing anything, or are you just tweeting about it? Just showing people how conscious and how smart you are, versus actually talking and listening. Just like in real life, how there’s blowhards and pretentious people.

At one point we learn, definitively, that Taylor’s advertised tastes are fake. Her “favorite” book is one she’s never actually read, for instance. What was the thinking behind crafting her character that way? To make her so deliberately surface-not-substance?

It really came from [trying] to tell the story just from Ingrid’s perspective. Reading some of the reviews, it’s like “We only understand Taylor on a surface level,” and that’s kind of by design. Ingrid thinks Taylor is one thing, and she turns out to not be that way. Ingrid commodifies Taylor, in one sense, and never tries to see her as a human. She puts her on a pedestal at first, and the second she sees that she’s not perfect, immediately removes her from the pedestal. And the reality is, she never makes any attempt to see her as human. And Taylor commodifies herself and says, “I’m a brand, I’m not a person.” And the danger of doing that is you reduce yourself to a brand. You’re not a person, you’re a commercial for a person. So I think there’s two sides to it.

It would be really interesting to do a movie from Taylor’s perspective. What is she really like as a person? Who is she behind the scenes? But we made the choice to tell the story from Ingrid’s point of view.