Today we’re going to deviate from my usual analyses of Plot and Character and delve into something I seldom have interest in discussing – theme. Thematic analysis has its place, of course – mostly in the hands of arthouse critics who relish the death of the author or sociology students who labour under the delusion that 2006’s Crash was somehow good – but for myself I’m generally less concerned with the question “What does it mean?” and more interested in the questions “Does it work?” and “Why or why not?”
Then I saw Ingrid Goes West. Obviously too late to include it in my 2017 Top Ten, which is a damn shame because if I had even known this film existed when assembling that list it would have bumped Thor: Ragnorok down into the dishonorable mentions and nestled itself somewhere around sixth place. Beyond merely being a great film and an effective Character tale, Ingrid Goes West deserves attention for having something important to say – something an entire generation of phone-slinging, social media-inundated hashtaggers desperately need to hear.
Aubrey Plaza stars as Ingrid Thorburn, a perfectly well-adjusted young woman with tons of friends and no emotional problems, which is best evidenced in the opening scene when she gate-crashes her Instagram idol’s wedding and pepper sprays her because she didn’t get an invite. This leads to a stint in a psychiatric ward and a brief montage in which we witness her brain abandon the last of its rationality and begin a manic freefall into total insanity. It’s probably important to disclose now that this is a comedy, because what transpires after the title card is creepier than It Follows and more cringe-inducing than that episode of The Office where Michael dumps Pam’s mom on her birthday.
Ingrid has some wee, shall we say, attachment issues – forming instant and completely one-sided relationships with semi-famous Instagram users and going from 0 to stalker in about 3.5 seconds. The bride in the cold opening was merely one in a long line of Ingrid’s self-proclaimed best friends, and wouldn’t you know it, a padded cell didn’t actually do anything to rehabilitate her. As Electro would say to Spider-Man, “…I’m surprised at that.”
Upon release, Ingrid is introduced via Instagram to a new bestie – Elizabeth Olsen’s Taylor Sloane, a Californian socialite with a seemingly idyllic lifestyle and a hashtag for every conceivable emotion under her radiant sun. Before you can say “like and subscribe,” Ingrid makes like the Pet Shop Boys and goes west to insert herself into her new BFF’s life. Such gestures of friendship include kidnapping Taylor’s dog (and subsequently returning it, thus ingratiating herself to her), taking covert snaps of the inside of her medicine cabinet, and exhibiting clinically insane behavior whenever she gives anyone else the slightest modicum of attention.
You know, normal friendship stuff.
Speaking of Taylor, she’s not beyond her own forms of obsessive-compulsive behavior. It seems she can’t walk two feet without making a post about the uniqueness of the sidewalk cracks and how they make her feel all warm and fuzzy inside and how life is sort of like a sidewalk crack and isn’t that profound, hashtag-don’t-break-your-back-ha-ha-love-love-aren’t-I-wonderful-winky-smiley-kissy-pooky-face. Though Ingrid’s pathology is cast center stage, the film makes it fairly clear that Taylor is not the walking embodiment of perfection her Instagram profile filters her to be and that her social media persona is a flimsy façade. She’s superficial, vapid, and a bit of a narcissist – more concerned with her online image than the wellbeing of anybody around her. Though she initially invites Ingrid into her world with open arms, their sisterhood only endures for a few days until her interest wanes and she drifts on to other things that can generate newer, pithier hashtags. Even her hipster husband (Wyatt Russell) is swiftly growing weary of her endless positioning of their lives on the Internet and laments the loss of the ordinary but genuine woman he married.
While Ingrid is clearly the deranged one of the two, both her and Taylor together represent opposite sides of the exact same coin. Both are obsessed with their social media applications to the point that they are hindered in furthering actual, meaningful relationships with the people around them. One chases flights of fancy, the other erects glittering barriers; one consumes, the other produces.
The themes should be fairly evident here, but we’ll begin with Ingrid. Like many people in the world today, she has an unhealthy attachment to her phone and all the supposed ‘interconnectivity’ it offers. She sees the world through her screen and seeks social fulfillment through her applications, which would be stunting even for an emotionally healthy person who doesn’t feign domestic abuse and kidnapping just to prove a point. Numerous studies (which I can’t be bothered to cite because I’m not getting graded for this and they’re pretty freaking easy to Google) suggest that higher levels of social media consumption may be directly correlated to increased feelings of isolation, especially in younger people. Think about it – we feel lonely, so we seek out from virtual sources all the attention, validation, acceptance, and intimacy that can only truly come from flesh-and-blood relationships, and the result makes us feel even more isolated than we did before. Face it, trying to dull the pangs of loneliness through Facebook Likes is the emotional equivalent of applying a Hello Kitty Band-Aid to a fractured tibia.
Ingrid is woefully incapable of forming healthy relationships with real people and becomes infatuated with Taylor based on her Instagram profile, hoping not only to emulate her ‘perfect’ lifestyle but be a vital extension of it. Naturally, things derail pretty spectacularly for her, and it is here that I’ll throw up (heh) a spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t dozed off yet. After she is unveiled as a deranged, borderline-criminal lunatic and ousted from Taylor’s life forever, Ingrid descends into a suicidal despair and posts her farewell to the world before downing a Benzodiazepine cocktail. As it happens, this post immediately goes viral and she is brought back from the brink by the timely intervention of Ice Cube’s son. Upon regaining consciousness in the hospital, she is reunited with her beloved phone and begins scrolling through the overwhelming influx of ‘love’ that’s pouring in from all corners of the Internet. Our final shot is of the manic grin spreading across her face, which is the most unnerving facial expression to close a film since the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
With this shot Ingrid is at last famous, befriended, loved, and unquestionably worse off than ever. There are no lessons learned in Ingrid Goes West, no clarity moments where our heroine sees the error of her ways and resolves to change, and no hope for a happy ending – only a steeper downward trajectory. As Larry David used to say on the set of Seinfeld, “No hugging, no learning.”
Ingrid not only falls victim to the false connectivity that social media offers – mistaking virtual attention for actual human companionship – she actually takes it a step further (okay, many ridiculously long strides forward). There’s an interesting psychological concept (that actually predates the advent of social media) called a ‘parasocial relationship,’ which I will speak authoritatively on now without doing any research into it beyond what I’ve gleaned from skimming the first sentence of its Wikipedia page. Essentially, a parasocial relationship is a purely one-sided connection that media consumers may form with famous individuals such as celebrities or sports figures. We as the consumer watch our favourite star’s films, monitor his or her public activities, ravenously consume their media presence, and eventually come to feel like we know them intimately. They, on the other hand, have no earthly clue that we even exist and probably don’t care.
Now, this isn’t entirely outlandish. After all, a celebrity’s entire livelihood is based on their appeal to the general public, so it’s natural that some of their adoring fanbase would develop some level of a parasocial relationship.
Hell, I have one with Anna Kendrick – except she knows I exist.
Of course, the development of parasocial relationships are not contingent on social media usage (the term having been coined sometime in the 50s) but they’re sure as hell amplified by them. Ingrid obviously forms one with Taylor through her Instagram page, and it is her distorted perception that they’re destined to be friends that compels her to sojourn west on a whim. Of course, Ingrid is mentally unstable, which admittedly makes it tough to separate her own irrational behavior from symptoms of the greater public’s social media consumption. On that note, I will transition now to Taylor.
… swiftly. BA-dum-CHAAAAAA.
The object of Ingrid’s psychosis is on the opposite end of the spectrum, obsessed with cataloging her entire life on Instagram, from her gourmet breakfasts to her nights out on the town. The film illustrates just how emotionally taxing this is on everyone around her and how ultimately shallow and pathetic it is to prioritize one’s online image over their actual life. While more people in the world today are likely more apt to follow Taylor’s example than Ingrid’s, I’m honestly not convinced one is all that better than the other. The incessant updating of statuses and hashtagging of emotions and snapping of chats and posting of photos to keep the world ‘informed’ is not a lifestyle I can ever be compelled to understand, and to illustrate I’m going to take a bit of a detour and confess my own social media habits.
I probably scroll my Facebook newsfeed more than I should, averaging about 8-12 logins daily even when I have no one to communicate with. I have maybe 140 Facebook friends, which is probably 136 too many considering how many of them I actually make time for. I speak frequently via Messenger with two out-of-province friends from college, without whom I probably wouldn’t have Facebook at all. Otherwise I can’t actually recall the last time I made a post that wasn’t a half-hearted promotion for SnootyFilmCritic, and my comments on others’ posts are few and far between. I text my few remaining local friends semi-frequently (mostly to arrange get-togethers, which happen roughly 2-4 times a week), but to be honest I prefer just calling them and staving off Carpal tunnel a little while longer. I have a Gmail account out of professional necessity and a Twitter page exclusively for this website, the latter of which I frequently forget to update. I’ve never used Instagram, SnapChat, Pinterest, ChapSnat, Tinder, Tumblr, Grindr, Blendr, Bopr, Twistr, Pullr, Shakr, or ChristianMingle (well, not sober anyway). In fact, I don’t even know what half those things are, and you may notice that I made one or two of them up (it was Pinterest). It also helps that I’m staring down the barrel of thirty and can still remember a time when wanting to talk to your friends meant dialing their home numbers on a phone/fax machine hybrid or biking down the block to their house, ringing the doorbell, and asking their scary father if they can come over and play Jedi Starfighter.
My point is, I personally don’t need an online presence to feel ‘connected’ to anybody, because I have actual, rewarding relationships in my life that I invest actual time and effort into, select as they are. Moreover, I simply don’t understand the compulsion to post one’s life and habits online, and that’s coming from somebody who labours under the delusion that people remotely give a shit about my thoughts on the narrative structure of obscure movies (er, like and subscribe? Somebody? Anybody??).
In light of my own relatively meager digital footprint, you can understand how disconcerting it is for me to witness others’ more excessive social media habits, especially when they come at the cost of the real, human connections we all desperately need.
I see it around me every single day.
For instance, recently I dined at a sushi bar with a friend (one of the 4/140). As we looked around the restaurant, we were both dumbfounded at how many people sat thumbing away at their smartphones instead of interacting with the person accompanying them. At one table a man was on a date with a woman who was clearly out of his league (it was like Miles Teller just woke up midway through a date with Emilia Clarke) and instead of being mesmerized by the beauty queen across from him he just sat on his phone for the duration of the date while she glanced around the restaurant, bored. On a bench outside the same bar, the exact same situation was unfolding, right down to the eerie Miles Teller and Emilia Clarke doppelgängers. I don’t think either of those couples said two words to each other, and sadly those were not isolated incidents.
On Friday nights I help lead a junior high youth group, which my local courthouse has told me I only have to do for another four months until my community service hours are completed and I can have a driver’s licence again. Anyway, I’m continually astonished by the amount of teenagers that play wallflower with their phones pressed against their eyeballs instead of mingling or participating in group activities. Instead of interacting and honing their social skills or being present, many of them sit on the sidelines in order to keep their Snapstreaks going – and believe me when I tell you, dear reader, that I have no godly idea what that means. When I was a kid there was always a ringleader who stepped forward to start a game of softball or kick the can… which, of course, I never participated in because I preferred reading… alone… in my basement… damn. Well, in any case, it was the 90’s and I didn’t have a smartphone, so at least there’s that.
I see a world obsessed with interconnectivity, and the irony is that the most social of God’s creatures are more lonely, isolated, and neurotic than ever before. We’re sacrificing real relationships for anonymous followers, substituting real intimacy for temporary validation, and casting aside actual social development for Twittering… Tweetering? Twitterpation. Time to wrap up.
Ingrid Goes West is darkly hilarious, practically haunting, and absolutely relevant. Ingrid didn’t learn a thing from her experiences in California, but that doesn’t mean we can’t. This week let’s all put our phones down and enjoy some actual face time with someone, shall we? Worst case scenario, we might become better people for it.
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