The trouble with dark comedy is that if it’s good it’s going to make you laugh raucously and then deeply uncomfortable with the very same truths it mined for laughs. By that measure, Ingrid Goes West is a tremendous and complete achievement.
It’s well worn territory that the Oscars don’t regularly show love for comedies. This has always perplexed me, since Comedy’s always been the opposite side of the coin to Tragedy (which the Academy has a persistent penchant for). The two share very similar DNA, and their ultimate difference is this: tragedy ends at a place that cannot go back to where it started (usually because of death), comedy ends right back where it started.
It’s a two year old movie, but I’ll still avoid spoilers here. Incorporating social media and cell phones into storytelling is something still being done with varying degrees of realism/efficacy in TV and film. Telling stories about our attachment to them succeed even more rarely. The Social Network, a film entirely focused on the founding of some social website (I can’t recall which one and I’m not going to look it up), still had a cloying undertone of “you kids sure enjoy getting these likes and pokes, eh?”
Most other films, at best, manage clear empathetic acknowledgement of the social media landscape and how it fits into our modern interactions. Ingrid Goes West wholeheartedly dives into confronting not just how it fits into our interactions with one another but the depth to which we derive meaning, fulfillment, validation, and actualization through it.
It’s a modern Day of the Locust, a book that is similarly underrated for its own boldly dark take on early twentieth century Hollywood diaspora, and similar to characters in that book, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) finds herself moving to Los Angeles in pursuit of glamour and the veneer of a fulfilling life full of friends and fun she can show off to the world through the frame of her Insta-camera.
It’s also one of the rare films/stories where there is no truly blameless person, but the film remains aloof of complete pessimism. Daniel Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr) as a Batman obsessed screenwriter is beatific in his earnestness and generosity, but ends up a victim himself to manipulation due to his emotional vulnerability. It’s a wonderfully complex story, brilliantly told and acted. Aside from the writing and acting, the cinematography keeps a story that’s so focused on cell phones and what we see through them interesting to watch.
How? We hardly ever see phone screens, except as an outlet of the characters themselves. It’s a surprising restraint many other films don’t show, an admirable given the story. We see the screen when Plaza is editing and re-editing an Instagram comment repeatedly, but for the most part the concern in these scenes is Plaza’s face, the stone faced fixation on her phone getting her high from the notifications pouring in.
Ingrid Goes West is an astonishing achievement: it’s told a truly entertaining, poignant, and haunting story focused on social media and how it affects us, and it did so by never losing the focus of its lens and story: while the subject was social media and our connectivity through our phones, the heart of it was always going to be in the humans desperately fixated on the screen hungry for that connection.