‘Ingrid Goes West” is a disturbing, darkly comic parable of the moment, a part-cheeky, part-creepy cautionary tale about meaning and connection — or the illusion of it — in these hyper-wired times when social media has, in some circles, supplanted actual social intercourse. It’s the story of a lost and lonely soul who, in her desperation to belong, almost disappears.
Aubrey Plaza plays Ingrid Thorburn, a young woman who, after a breakdown that lands her, briefly, in a mental hospital, gathers up her belongings and, financed by a modest cash payout from her late mother’s life insurance policy, heads to Venice, Calif., with the new Instagram moniker ingridgoeswest as her banner of reinvention. It’s fitting that this broken person — or, rather, persona — has decided to make herself whole in La La Land, a place where a waiter, on her arrival, greets Ingrid with the restaurant’s Question of the Day: “What’s your biggest emotional wound?”
She, as it happens, can’t say, having failed to do the hard work that comes before self-knowledge. Seeking easy endorphins elsewhere, Ingrid starts following an Instagram “influencer” named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a style-savvy photographer whose paid product-placement postings Ingrid starts compulsively “liking” in the hope of being liked in return.
Following turns into stalking, and Ingrid quickly engineers a way of meeting — and then ingratiating herself with — Taylor and her boyfriend (Wyatt Russell), a painter whose work consists of found thrift-store canvases on which he has overlaid such hashtags as #squadgoals.
The first half of the film, which mocks emoji and other shallow, ephemeral forms of engagement, shapes up to be a satire of contemporary communication and the fruit-fly-fleeting nature of cultural discourse. Directed with light but not lethal touch by Matt Spicer, “Ingrid Goes West” mostly draws laughter, not blood. (Spicer is aided in this deft approach by co-writer David Branson Smith, who learned his comedic craft as an assistant to series co-creator Mike White of HBO’s “Enlightened.”)
But the humor in this movie soon turns far blacker, uglier and clumsier as things spin out of control after Taylor’s sleazy brother (Billy Magnussen) uncovers the ruses Ingrid has constructed to worm her way into Taylor’s life. Blackmail, attempted murder and something that feels very much like the brink of actual madness ensue, casting a sour, unsettling pall over the previously farcical proceedings.
Plaza, of course, is marvelous in the title role, embracing Ingrid’s unflattering neediness with a commitment that’s scary. And, in a small role as her landlord and pretend boyfriend, O’Shea Jackson Jr. of “Straight Outta Compton” shines.
There’s an attempt to end on a hopeful note that doesn’t quite jibe with the jaundiced outlook of the film that came before. What reason is there for optimism, other than the need for a happy ending? “Ingrid Goes West” doesn’t quite go south, but in diving headfirst into the swamp of Internet addiction, its vision gets a little murky.
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity, drug use, disturbing behavior and some sexuality. 97 minutes.