On World Social Media Day, revisiting Ingrid Goes West — equal parts cautionary tale and chronicle of a zeitgeist
The Instagram-obsessed protagonist of 2017's Ingrid Goes West holds up a mirror to our own relationship with social media
The findings of a global digital overview released this January noted that over 4.5 billion people were using the internet at the start of 2020. There were over 3.8 billion active social media users, and “the latest trends suggest that more than half of the world’s total population will use social media by the middle of this year,” the report observed.
Those numbers, while telling, don’t even begin to paint a picture of just how much social media has come to shape modern life. An acknowledgement of the phenomenon occurred a decade ago, when 30 June was declared “World Social Media Day”. Incidentally, The Social Network — about Facebook’s founding — was released that same year. But for the definitive film about social media, we probably need to look to Matt Spicer’s 2017 black comedy, Ingrid Goes West.
Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) battles an undisclosed mental health condition. When Ingrid pepper spays a social media influencer for not sending her a wedding invite — full disclosure: Ingrid and the influencer aren’t friends or even acquaintances; the extent of their interaction is that the influencer commented on one of Ingrid’s Instagram posts, which leads the latter to believe they’re the thickest of pals — Ingrid is admitted to rehab.
Her agony in rehab is what starts off the film; she’s established as a victim right at the onset. But as she exits the facility and the narrative begins to unfold, Ingrid’s journey becomes a cautionary tale, particularly for those unwittingly addicted to social media platforms.
In this film, social media may be a catalyst for Ingrid’s mental illness, but it is also a coping mechanism. Instagram triggers her downward spiral, but also keeps her sane. Through an encounter with her social media idol Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) Ingrid is forced to confront the illusory nature of social media — until she becomes an influencer herself.
Taylor is your typical, chirpy influencer; she posts about intellectual books she hasn’t read, attends parties for the sake of social media mileage, and has more pictures of her dog than family on her feed.
Those who view Ingrid’s obsession through a judgmental prism in the beginning gradually witness the exposé of her social media “idol”. Taylor seems like one of us, who has worked her way up the followers ladder, and earned lots of virtual love in the process. Yes, she may ask a kind gentleman who agreed to click her picture to take multiple photos while she’s lying on a road whilst flashing the victory sign. Yes, she may also ditch her BFF Ingrid’s invitation to a VIP party only to go for it anyway with more 'influential' company, and fake-frown at Ingrid getting thrown out of the same do. But she is 'normal' because she has a sizeable social media following — a nod to the fact that in this day and age, you’re more likely to be considered strange if you do not have a social media presence than if you spend copious amounts of time on any of the numerous platforms, driven by FOMO.
Things begin to unravel when Taylor’s parasitic brother shows up. He gains access to Ingrid’s phone and figures out she’s been stalking his sister all this while. He uses this information to blackmail her for money, but Ingrid retaliates with a self-destructive plan. After a chain of events, she is seen fretting over missed calls and messages that are left at “seen” by Taylor.
A stream of desperate one-way communication later, Ingrid is informed by Taylor that she got to know the whole story from her brother, and does not want to maintain any further contact with her. This feels akin to a breakup for Ingrid, who sends Taylor voice messages that range from “I’m Ingrid... your best friend”, to “pick up the phone, b*tch”, followed by “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I said that”.
Ingrid eventually grabs hold of Taylor — after spending a fortune to buy the house next to hers, failing to pay the electricity bills, and extracting coins from her water closet only so she can buy a bottle of water. When Taylor tells Ingrid that her “life is a lie”, Ingrid counters by holding the mirror up to Taylor: “Your brother is a drug addict. Your husband doesn't like you. You were a miserable piece of sh*t when you moved here because no one would talk to you. You were exactly what I am right now!”
Shaken, faced with a realisation she’s kept in the darkest recesses of her mind, Taylor regains her composure and responds: “I was never like you... You need professional help.”
This ends up pushing Ingrid off the edge; she overdoses on pills, posting an Instagram video before losing consciousness. More than a suicide note, the video is a cry for help: Ingrid says she’s recording it “because I have no one else to talk to”.
The video saves her life. Her former landlord sees it on Instagram and alerts the authorities. When she regains consciousness in the hospital, Ingrid cries profusely and claims she feels sorry for doing “a stupid thing”. But in the next moment, she notices the balloons and gifts around her bed, sent by followers who watched her Instagram video.
Her eyes widen with the thrill of realising she is a social media influencer now. She scrolls through her feed excitedly to see hordes of followers commenting on and sharing posts accompanied by #IAmIngrid. In that moment, Ingrid Goes West evolves from a cautionary tale to an apt capsule of the social media zeitgeist.
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