Aubrey Plaza is not April Ludgate, this is true. But her Parks And Recreation character’s eye-rolling, morbid sensibility has proven so beloved that the two have become inextricable in the cultural eye. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, you’d have to ask Plaza, but after Parks And Rec ended in 2015, she briefly pivoted into playing a hot girl in the bro comedies Dirty Grandpa and Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates, with less-than-desirable results. Earlier this year, her scene-stealing role in Legion saw Plaza embracing her weirdo destiny, and now the black stalker comedy Ingrid Goes West gives her a similar opportunity to show, if not a broad range of roles, the depths of her acting talent.
We begin in media res, as Ingrid Thorburn (Plaza), her face stained with tears and her long dress covered with a dirty oversize sweatshirt, barges into a wedding to pepper-spray the bride, a woman we later find out she barely even knows. After a brief detour to the mental hospital, Ingrid is back home and back to her routine of stuffing limp convenience-store food into her mouth while obsessively scrolling through Instagram in her pajamas. Ingrid’s M.O. is mistaking social media likes for actual human connection—something she sorely lacks—and so it doesn’t take long for her to zero in on a new obsession, faux-hemian “influencer” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). An innocent reply to a comment on Instagram later and Ingrid has cashed in her modest inheritance to move to L.A. and obsessively remake herself in Taylor’s image.
This all happens within the first 10 minutes of the film, which devotes much of its running time to skewering the pretentious unpretentiousness of Taylor and her bearded and boat-shoe-clad husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell). Both characters are sharply and specifically drawn, a particular sort of millennial West Coast hipster attempting to distract from their preppie boarding-school roots by draping themselves in Pendleton blankets and Joan Didion quotes. Ezra is an “artist” who’s never sold a painting—“He’s just, like, really bad at self-promotion,” Taylor explains—whose work is all third-rate Wayne White knockoffs, thrift-store paintings with ironic social-media phrases like “Squad Goals” and “#Blessed” painted over them. After stealing the couple’s dog so she can return it, Ingrid ends up being Ezra’s first customer, cementing her bond with the couple and inserting herself not only into their #nofilter life of poolside cocktails and Joshua Tree getaways, but also the resentment and dysfunction just under that curated surface. If that bond ends up being shallow, well, how deep can a friendship predicated on lies—on both sides of the equation—be?
If that shallowness makes sense, however, the surface treatment given to the character of Ingrid’s landlord/love interest, Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), is less justified. Jackson isn’t wasted, exactly, given that he’s quite funny in what’s by far the most endearing role in the film. It’s just that, like Taylor and Ezra, Dan—a vaping nerd and aspiring screenwriter obsessed with Batman—is so specifically drawn as a character that it’s too bad to see him ultimately fall into the role of “eternally forgiving sidekick” in Ingrid’s increasingly unhinged and dangerous schemes. That being said, the cast is uniformly strong, although Plaza does a lot of the dirty work as the desperate Ingrid, whose unnerving smile suggests that she could fall back into psychosis at any moment.
But the biggest selling point of Ingrid Goes West is its screenplay, which is full of deadpan comic flourishes—“Damn girl, that looks yummy as fuck! What’s your email address?” Ingrid comments on an Instagram post—and which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Given that the satire is so character-based, however, the whole film begins to wobble when it comes time to actually get down to the mechanics of moving the plot forward, and not just skewer a culture that considers posing for Instagram selfies a valid lifestyle choice. That is to say, it’s more of a snapshot than anything, but, as the film makes clear, careers have been built on less.