Ingrid Goes West‘s Satire is Two-Fold

Where most tech satires focus only on the tech, Ingrid Goes West reaches wider.

The following article contains SPOILERS (and ALLUSIONS TO SPOILERS) for Ingrid Goes West.

None of this is new.

That is often where most technological social satire goes wrong.  Your Men, Women & Childrens, your The Circles, your below-average episodes of Black Mirror, they all present themselves and their satire in a dead-serious, tech-heavy leaning didacticism, placing so much emphasis on the technology side of the human:tech ratio that they end up effectively claiming that all of their story’s wrongs could have been avoided entirely if it weren’t for that insidious and evil technology being around.  New technologies are not in the slightest way blameless.  For all the good that social media has done us in expanding our horizons, bringing unlikely souls together, and allowing many of us to forge legitimate connections that can help us feel a little less alone, to claim that it hasn’t also preyed upon our neediest and most narcissistic tendencies, largely devolved nuance into a fine paste, and exploited many people’s worst behaviours under the shield of anonymity, is to have not been paying attention.  But to start espousing the kind of luddite ideology that those prior examples do is to miss the wider picture.

None of this is new.  The problems that these works posit are purely the results of modern technology and online connectivity?  They have always been here.  Despite what Men, Women & Children may like to claim, pushy stage moms who exploit their children thoughtlessly for profit at the expense of their offspring’s wellbeing have existed for decades.  Despite what alarmist news stories on particularly slow news days like to scream, children being groomed by paedophiles is not a problem endemic solely to social media.  Despite what The Circle likes to claim, issues of privacy and surveillance, of companies and governments either cluelessly or maliciously infringing upon you more and more, are not just a recent phenomenon.  I’d also throw Black Mirror’s excretable “Shut Up and Dance” into this refutation paragraph, except that I still have no idea what the hell that episode was actually about.

It all comes back to the old adage that great sci-fi is more about humanity than the science itself.  In the same way that the best sci-fi uses its fantastical conceit to reflect our humanity back at us and illuminate aspects that we often don’t acknowledge, the best tech satires recognise that the technology only warps behaviours that existed without it through its own lens.  Bullying, body-image insecurities, and low self-esteem all existed long before our day-to-day lives became inexorably tied to checking our Facebook feeds.  The nature of instant global communication, information overload, and corporate attempts to monetize these new forms of social interaction have simply altered the manner in which those things manifest.  Not only do the tolerable tech satires realise that, they also deliver their commentary with empathy and understanding, since we are all in this anxiety-inducing boat together, rather than smug scornful superiority about how everything is awful and they are so much better than everybody else for seeing this and not engaging.  (Sweet Jesus, somebody PLEASE take all of Father John Misty’s recording equipment away from him and lock it in safe 5,000 feet underground, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.)

Therefore: none of this is new.  Idol worship is not new; civilisations have been founded upon it.  Celeb culture is not new; cheap gossip rags have been attempting to invest us in the meaningless drama of famous people in an effort to make them seem more relatable and human, whilst still being worthy of discussion and adoration, for decades.  A desire for us plebs to know and be acknowledged by famous people is not new; it’s the way that idol worship manifests in modern society, in a more tangible and supposedly-attainable way.  Social anxiety is most definitely not new, and neither is the constant crushing feeling of desperate bitter loneliness that can accompany it.

What social media has done is alter and add to the ways in which these things can manifest in a person, preying upon their narcissism and anxieties and desires to be accepted into a group, to feel wanted.  Engaging within it can feel amazing, providing you with the kinds of connection and acceptance that you can’t find outside of it, ultimately allowing you to better express and discover oneself.  But it can also leave one feeling just as miserable and lonely as before, at the times when that distance feels more encroaching than ever and the belief of a connection’s artificiality weighs ever heavier on the mind.  Not to mention that most online personalities try to create a comforting group dynamic between themselves and their audience that can inadvertently backfire and amplify a hole in the viewer’s life.  I spent a large amount of time this past month watching Loading Ready Run videos, particularly their Desert Bus for Hope clips after tuning into parts of this year’s stream, and they simultaneously comforted me and exacerbated my current bout of depressive loneliness.  But opting out of the loop is not necessarily a fix, either, especially for those who have little going on outside of the constant online stream of activity.  Quitting can feel equally as isolating and heavy as remaining connected.

Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West is an Instagram satire.  It is a vicious, precision-calibrated, scorching takedown of Instagram Celebrity culture, social media, millennial narcissism, White hipsterdom, and the phoniness of the West Coast lifestyle.  Its critique of the inherent dishonesty and artificiality of social media – where almost everybody is putting on their best, most positive faces at all times, to an absurd degree, like lifestyle ads gone sentient – is unrelenting, particularly when the film has characters narrating their own vapid captions, the point where over-earnestness finally keels over and dies.  Everything is the greatest, everything is worthy of sharing, everything is content, all part of a perfect little life that’s so much better than your own.  This too goes for interacting with those producing the content.  Nuance is incompatible with the feed.  Expressing your approval of something is only achievable via hearts, which Instagram still classes as “likes” but which carry the connotations of unreserved full-on “love,” and commenting, despite supposedly tearing down further boundaries between the Celebrity and Us, is more like shouting into the overcrowded void than ever before.  It’s an illusion, it’s all an illusion, but one that we buy into for that tiny chance that we may be acknowledged by this cool person for even a second, and that said acknowledgement may imbue our lives with meaning or help us feel less alone.

But, again, the underlying insecurities and desires that social media twists to its own ends – that desire to find acceptance, for acknowledgment that you mean something to somebody else, to attempt to fit in with people you consider “cool” – exist already without the presence and influence of social media.  They’re inherently baked into our societal constructs, and Ingrid Goes West’s realisation of this is what makes it so fucking brutal to watch.  What is Ingrid’s spectacularly awkward and failed attempt to subtly catch the attention of, and start a conversation with, Taylor in a boutique store but the real-life version of drafting and redrafting the perfect witty comment to somebody’s picture of avocado toast?  Her constant bluffing about the things she likes, all studiously researched from Taylor’s various social feeds; nothing more than one’s misguided attempts to appear cool at the start of a relationship, for fear that not being so might drive others away.  That restrained sense of joy when Taylor includes her in a selfie for Taylor’s Insta; the same when one’s newest friends first invite them to a party or to go bowling or some other thing.

It’s telling that one of the film’s most painful moments is completely free of social media altogether, and is instead based on the kind of interaction that happens naturally: Ingrid overhearing Taylor confessing a secret to Harley that she had earlier told Ingrid, with Ingrid taking this as a huge betrayal of the sanctity of her and Taylor’s relationship.  It’s the moment where you are forced to remember that, despite what you may sometimes think in your brain, your friend’s life does go on without you, that they do have other friends besides you that they are equally as open with, and that, despite the perpetuated concept of the “Best Friend” bond that connotates a certain possessiveness, your friend is their own person and they owe you nothing.  Seeing something quietly snap in Ingrid as a result of it, and her growing belief that she is slowly being shut out of a relationship that feels real to her despite its foundations of half-truths, outright lies, and sociopathic manipulations, is cringe-inducingly painful to watch precisely because social media has precious little to do with it.  It’s human nature.

On that note, Ingrid Goes West plays a damn dangerous game by having Ingrid herself be explicitly mentally ill (although the film never states what type of mental illness she does have).  Particularly since it risks equating its satire of both sociality and social media culture as the domain of the mentally ill, although I feel that it manages to skate around this by two ingenious solutions.  The first is that, thanks to Aubrey Plaza’s career best performance, I can link Ingrid to another anti-villain protagonist from another year-best satire: Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler.  Both leads are mentally-disturbed sociopaths – borderline in Ingrid’s case, full-blown in Lou’s – whose sociopathy ends up as a mirror for the aspects of human interaction that reveal themselves to be troublingly based on manipulation when we are forced to examine them for too long – Lou for finding success in a capitalistic society where only those without morals can secure their position; Ingrid for trying to chase this myopic concept of “happiness” through forcibly ingratiating herself into the #squad lifestyles that the media sells her in order to compensate for the crippling hole in her own life.  Lou manipulates people for profit, Ingrid manipulates people out of a deep desire to not be alone, both are daily societal behaviours that one partakes in presented in uncomfortably direct ways.

But the other way that Ingrid Goes West avoids stigmatising mental illness with its satire, and also where Ingrid herself departs from one of modern cinema’s biggest monsters, is in its abiding empathy and understanding for almost all of its cast.  Ingrid often does horrible things – after her boutique store attempt fails, Ingrid engineers her first meeting with Taylor by stalking the latter to her house, waiting until she and her boyfriend Ezra leave, breaking in, and kidnapping their precious dog in order to appear the heroic dog rescuer – and constantly uses people without acknowledging the consequences in order to get closer to Taylor.  But Ingrid is not acting maliciously.  Not always, at least.  She is just desperately, crazily lonely.  The only person whom she truly connected with and felt understood by (her mom) died a while back, and so, in her mind, the brief connections she makes on Instagram are real to her, and represent somebody not calling her crazy or weird but instead seeing her as a person.  This is how Ingrid thinks social interactions are supposed to go, to be this deliberately artificial and constructed, reinforced by the gradual reveal that Taylor’s own personality is almost completely put-on out of a similarly fear-driven desire to find “acceptance,” so that’s how she interacts.

And whilst Ingrid Goes West takes its deserving swipes at the culture that Ingrid plugs into, and also recognises when she’s gone too far, the film mostly views her with a tragic pity.  Her obsessions and mental illness not being targets of mockery and scorn, but empathy and understanding.  The irony of her blasting full-force into the lives of Taylor and her crew but continually abusing the trust and efforts of Dan, the one guy who’s trying to engage with her as a person instead of a “freak.”  Even more, Ingrid extends that kind of empathy and pity to almost all of its well-shaded cast of characters; it’s what makes Ingrid’s final confrontation with Taylor cut both ways, as two scared, lonely, fake people each try to take the high ground yet ultimately fail because they’re both as bad as each other.

That empathy is most prevalent in the characters that, in most other tech-satires – looking at you, Black Mirror’s “Nose Dive” – would be the didactic voices of reason, joylessly judging the rest of the cast for their short-sighted vapidity as the film stands in the background loudly nodding its head at every last syllable.  Ezra and Nicky (Taylor’s brother who turns up unannounced halfway through) are the kinds of bros who need to loudly announce their disgust about social media and the Internet and the entire phony SoCal culture they’re a part of at almost every turn.  Ezra is even an artist whose output consists almost entirely of other’s stock paintings that he has ‘ironically’ stamped phrases like “#goals” over the top of.  Except that Ezra is revealed to be the kind of failing artist who knows that he is a failing artist, and his discomfort over his environment stems from his fear that he is losing Taylor, whom he knew before the Insta Celeb shebang, to a world he doesn’t understand, rather than any pretentious soapboxing.  Whilst Nicky’s vocal disdain for every and all aspects of Taylor’s world manifests in a hypocritical decadent embrace of it all, since he figures that knowing everything is bullshit gives him license to act like the biggest asshole in the room, and Ingrid therefore treats him as the sole character in the movie worthy of nothing but scorn.

Even Dan cannot disconnect from the loop of social media.  One of the first things he does after setting Ingrid up with an apartment is follow her on Instagram, a small action that’s vital to the film’s climax.  More than that, however, is how, despite the artificiality in the foundations of almost all of Ingrid’s relationships, and her constant manipulations to ensure that they happen, the kernel of something real eventually sprouts despite that.  A coke-fuelled Joshua Tree getaway, a candid admission of fear in the dying embers of a party, the shared pain of loss over dinner, thousands of strangers offering support after witnessing one of those screams into the void.  That last one can scan as insincere – in fact, it’s easy to read the film’s ending as a distaff counterpart to that of Black Mirror’s “Five Million Merits” – since there is a much larger distance between experiencing the vulnerability one is reacting to in person and viewing it on a phone or desktop screen, but finding the right words to say in an Internet comment is not a whole lot easier than doing so in person, and Ingrid is all about drawing the parallels between those two social constructs.

Both are artificial in their own ways, but both can also create something real, and it’s down to us to decide which nuggets of real we are willing to hold onto.  That last part is what keeps Ingrid Goes West from falling into full-on nihilism.  Support, whether it be from a close friend or thousands of anonymous randos with limited means of communication, is support, and none of this – the anxiety, the loneliness, the performance – is new.

Callie Petch turns the TV on, it looks just like a window.

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