Any doubts as to Aubrey Plaza’s acting chops should go out the window with Ingrid Goes West (2017), a quirky dark comedy that shines a spotlight not only on Plaza’s trademark comic timing but her impressive dramatic range. She stars as Ingrid Thorburn, a troubled young woman with deep psychological issues that lead her to obsess over online friends she’s never even met. After her mother’s death, Ingrid—also still reeling from a breakdown in the wake of a disappointing online girl crush—becomes obsessed with a new best friend: Venice Beach coolhunter Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a photographer and Internet “it girl” who mobilize her legions of Instagram followers with hit-making photos-slash-ads. Ingrid first labors to get on Taylor’s radar through the usual social media methods, but when her mother’s life insurance check comes through, she cashes it and impulsively moves to California with the sole aim of becoming Taylor’s best friend in real life.
The structure of Ingrid Goes West will surprise nobody: protagonist pursues the wrong goal, missing the better choices right in front of her nose, succeeds until she fails, breaks down, and learns (perhaps?) her lesson. The beats will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a contemporary comedy, even if this one’s approach is slightly more esoteric than usual. There is a recent subject matter precedent, however: Ingrid’s journey is highly reminiscent of Rebecca Bunch’s on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: a playful, blackly comic examination of mental health issues. Here, as well, intense psychological problems are played for laughs, but are ultimately also taken quite seriously. It does inspire a case of deja vu.
That said, there are winning details and surprising joys within Ingrid Goes West, mostly stemming from its roster of well defined characters brought impressively to life. In light of Plaza’s dominating star turn, it’s easy to overlook Olsen’s subtle performance as the charismatic yet superficial object of Ingrid’s obsession. The script reveals deftly that Taylor is completely wrong for Ingrid, even if Ingrid can’t see that, and her idyllic life eventually starts to show its hollow underside. Helping this gradual reveal are strong performances from Wyatt Russell (as Taylor’s dilettante husband Ezra) and Billy Magnussen (delivering memorable villainy as Taylor’s asshole brother Nicky). Meanwhile, as Ingrid’s casual, vaping landlord Dan, O’Shea Jackson Jr. makes a likable impression as Ingrid’s obvious soul mate; his performance helps bring the film to a satisfying emotional conclusion.
Still, the film belongs to Plaza. Fans of Parks and Recreation familiar with her disaffected turn as April Ludgate will recognize certain familiar qualities, but also see her take them to another level. (Indeed, Legion was no fluke.) She plays Ingrid’s comically cringeworthy experience with the usual humorous expertise before ultimately elevating her performance during a crucial scene of emotional climax. At times, I wasn’t onboard for the journey of this film, but the end point kind of tied it all together for me. Plaza’s performance is heartbreaking, and leads to a cleverly ambiguous denouement that hints at the possibility of Ingrid’s emotional salvation, while also warning as to the toxic social media culture that may still control her. Overall, it’s an engaging, funny-sad film with empathy in its heart, a great vehicle for Plaza and a talented supporting cast.