Ingrid Goes Insane: Instagram, Mental Illness, and a New Aesthetic

Celebrity culture has always involved emulation and envy.  People wanted to be as glamorous as Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant or Julia Roberts; the herculean popularity of Bollywood for the masses of South Asia speaks to the allure of sitting in a dark, air-conditioned room and getting carried away to a magical place where sexy, talented people carry on lives almost unimaginable to the ordinary person.  Woody Allen’s classic The Purple Rose of Cairo functions the same way, as a meditation on workaday poverty and romantic “escapism,” as it is somewhat derisively described by scholars and critics.

I could be a princess!

Something peculiar has happened in the age of the Internet, though.  A mendacious nobody like Matt Drudge who almost definitely does kinky 40s-era fast-talking journalist cosplay with a Katharine Hepburn look-alike could become a major figure in American society, vaulting out of total obscurity just with a website.  Blogs peeled away one more barrier to access, and then Twitter, Facebook, and other social media made push-button publishing all the more… push-buttony.  The thoughts from a deranged septuagenarian can get from a golden toilet seat to the entire world in less than five seconds.

Media studies scholars call this quality “immediacy”—the sense that the radio or television removes the distance between the listener and the events happening, erasing the space between.  The media become immediate, unmediated, seemingly bringing us into direct contact with a flood or protest or celebrity soiree.  You can tweet to Rosario Dawson and she (or her assistant) will literally write back to a random stranger like you. (Both Taye Diggs and Scaramucci have followed us. Yes… we kn0w.)

This function is almost always an illusion—the idea that the medium effaces itself to create the sensation of direct access.  But there is no denying the fact that the workings of social media have created a far more direct, unfiltered platform for virtually anyone in the world, whether it’s sharing photos from a family trip on Facebook or cultivating a massive Instagram or Twitter following.

Smile, You’re on Candid Camera

Which brings us to the fascinating new film Ingrid Goes West, directed by Matt Spicer and co-written by Spicer and David Branson Smith. Aubrey Plaza stars as the titular character, a deeply unhappy and unstable woman who opens the film by pepper-spraying a seeming friend on the night of her wedding.  (Coming only about a minute into the film, this scene was unwarrantedly fulfilling.)

It is not revealing too much to say that the victim of this aggression was not exactly a friend of Ingrid, but rather an Instagram celebrity that she had become obsessed with.  Ingrid longs for the beautiful lifestyle of social media dynamos who have perfected “lifestyle branding” into a highly lucrative artform, posting photos of the wonderful food they eat, the awesome vacation destinations they go to, their perfect relationships with their impossibly cute partners and friends.

In a way, we all do what these Instagram mavens do, and most of us are at least a little queasy about it.  We obviously don’t photos that make us look bad (well, I do).  We want to show our friends and family the best, most beautiful, fun side of ourselves when we go on a vacation or honeymoon. Not for entirely conceited reasons, we want to share the good stuff with those we love.  (Which is why everyone thinks everyone else’s life is better than theirs.)

Some people have just figured out how to turn that garden-variety showing-off into a business model, and Ingrid Goes West concerns those people—and their public, so to speak. Taylor Sloane, brilliantly played by Elizabeth Olsen (who knows a thing or two about growing up in the spotlight), is the sort of woman who photographs avocado toast and hashtags #perfect and ruminates self-indulgent platitudes like the “couple that yogas together stays together.” People want the handbags and art she picks out, they want the hot husband she has, they want to be as happy and fulfilled as she obviously is.  Ingrid certainly does.

Without going too much into the plot, Ingrid goes to LA and worms her way into the lives of the characters whose lives she covets.  There are many wonderful layers of irony in the premise; “going west” is an old American trope keyed into ideals of individualism and self-invention, yet Ingrid goes to copy someone else.  The la-la land of Hollywood mythmaking has been remade in the tiny format of the Instagram photo, where people want to show how great their Venice Beach or Los Feliz life is just so epic and fantastic.  By evincing a gaggingly American can-do, positive attitude of embracing life, Ingrid can pretend to be one of these beloved women who resides in a Californian paradise.

The film toggles uneasily between different tones and narrative devices, as the story at times feels like a wicked satire or black comedy, and other times seems vastly more menacing–more like a thriller.  Ingrid is alone, isolated, dishonest, pathological, even violent, yet we feel compelled to root for her on some level.  The insipidness of the Aryan family at the heart of the film contributes to this; Ingrid may be a nutjob, but Taylor is a vapid, insincere operator, her brother is a bullying psychopath reminiscent of the brother character in Get Out, and her husband is a slightly endearing dude-bro of the type that Wyatt Russell seems to play naturally, as in the winsome 2016 Linklater romp Everybody Wants Some!!  Even if Ingrid is a dangerous, unhinged person, the viewer cannot escape feeling that these morons also deserve to have their world of seemingly unearned, sun-dappled Southern California idyll turned upside down too.

The obvious parallel to anyone of a certain age is Single White Female (1992)—another story of a less-than-Aryan brunette lusting after and copying the life of a more glamorous blonde.  (For what it’s worth, Ingrid doesn’t seem to dwell overmuch on the racial or ethnic undertones of the story, though the subplot about a sincere and unassuming landlord played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who does not seem to understand the self-serving wiles of social media stardom, hints at it.)  Ingrid is definitely Single-White-Femaling Taylor, but just in a new era of online self-invention.

What truly sets Ingrid Goes West apart as a movie about contemporary relationships and technology is its visual aesthetic.  The movie poster hints at a classic, cheesy epic like Star Wars or Big Trouble in Little China, even though it’s about something as mundane as people taking photos of their food.  The film itself, though, incorporates the detritus of social media on the big screen.  The very particular way that skilled “grammers” photograph a plate of eggs benedict comes into view; the strange, square format of Instagram both harks back to a bygone age of photography but also points to a new category of digital visualization and documentation.

Combine all this with the weird patois of online expression—“hashtag perfect,” “hashtag blessed,” “hands clasped emoji”—which not only offers new vistas for preening and humble-bragging, but also introduces a staccato new grammar to human speech, and you have a movie that integrates a new visual and oral aesthetic in a way that few other films have.  It’s like watching the new technology of radio depicted in a movie from the 1930s, or the CB in a late 1970s trucker movie.  New ways of speaking, new ways of representing, new forms of interaction with technology tend to take a while to work their way into more traditional narratives, at least to do so in a naturalistic and un-gimmicky way.  Ingrid Goes West pulls this feat off brilliantly, more perhaps than films that have dealt with similar subject matter, such as The Social Network (2010) or The Bling Ring (2013).

It takes time for an older medium—like film or television or even video games—to work in new languages of representation, even if they seem as ordinary or commonplace as food photos apparently already are.  From a film history perspective, this seems to be the most notable feature of Ingrid Goes West’s contribution.

But on a level of character and story, the most striking quality of the film is the way it portrays loneliness and alienation.  Social media is perhaps the greatest expression ever of the “lonely crowd,” as David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney’s 1950 book famously put it.  How can we be alone with all our friends?  We’re “with” our friends more than ever on Facebook or Instagram, and yet we are also just distant spectators in their lives, whether it’s a best friend from college or a celebrity account one follows.  We are more “social” than ever but may experience greater feelings of isolation, sadness, envy, or even resentment in the brave new world created by Zuck and Tom.

What does Ingrid actually want?  What is the endgame?  In the end, it’s not quite Single-White-Femaling her idol and literally replacing her.  It’s something far darker and open-ended.  Every interaction between Taylor, Ingrid, and others is a negotiation of higher and lower status; what can I get from someone with more followers than me, and how much do I have to stroke their ego to get into their better graces?  How much time or energy do I have to spend on someone lower on the totem pole than me, besides the most minimal kind of politeness?

Given this kind of game-theory approach to self-enrichment and profit-maximization, there is no end in sight.  Not for Ingrid, and not even for Taylor.  One can always be more fabulous, happier, followed by more people.  Ingrid’s road west is a road to nowhere and everywhere—a hamster wheel of desire and despair.  One more “like,” and I’ll be happy, honest. #blessed