Possibly the best film to be made about Instagram to date, Ingrid Goes West takes place in a world in which online romance, crushing and stalking has shifted in focus from prospective romantic and sexual partners to prospective social connections and lifestyle gurus. Penned and directed by Matt Spicer in his debut feature, it centres on Ingrid, played by Aubrey Plaza, a social misfit who crashes one of her Instagram friends’ weddings and then retreats into solitude, only to become increasingly obsessed with an up-and-coming Instagram star, Sloane, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who is starting to makes waves in Los Angeles, After Sloane responds to one of Ingrid’s comments (on a post about a smashed avocado sandwich), she uses her mother’s inheritance to move cross-country, renting out an apartment in Venice Beach and doing everything she can to ingratiate herself into Sloane’s circle and, from there, her Instagram feed. On the face of it, that might seem to promise one of two fairly recognisable films – social media as farce, or social media as psychopathology – but to its credit the film never quite commits to either of these trajectories, instead offering a considerably more elusive and emergent evocation of the texture and affect of Instagram.
In part, that’s because, for Ingrid, moving to Los Angeles is radically equated with the peculiar atmospherics and ambience of Instagram, inducing her to start posing for an omnipresent and omniscient Instagram filter as soon as she arrives. In the process, the city is presented as the closest we can come to actually immersing ourselves in Instagram to the extent that Instagram demands we immerse ourselves in it, which is perhaps why the shift in location also brings the film itself closer, formally, to an Instagram feed or Instagram story. Most noticeably, Spicer collapses any real distinction between establishing and narrative shots, or between physical and social infrastructure, with many moments hanging on for just a little too long, as if waiting to be remediated, liked and shared by a hypothetical digital audience. As a result, Sloane always feels just as present as an Instagram crush as she does as a more “realistic” character, even or especially once she and Ingrid get to know each other following a “chance” meeting. If anything, she only grows closer to her Instagram self through her friendship with Ingrid, which is perhaps why her actual presence in Ingrid’s life plays as a perpetual miracle, a digital fantasy become flesh, investing their rapport with a breathless romantic possibility that has long been absent from regular romantic comedies.
Even more curiously, this rapport immediately – and authentically – connects Ingrid to the broader cultural history of Los Angeles, and especially the muted, washed-out aesthetics of New Hollywood, with Sloane introducing Ingrid to Joan Didion, and her mantra that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If Los Angeles was once defined by its inextricability from the movie industry, then Ingrid Goes West suggests that not all that much has really changed in our post-cinematic era – the city has simply shifted from the centre of the cinematic universe to the centre of a social media universe that is firmly anchored in this cinematic substrate, and unthinkable without it. As Spicer seamlessly (and quite unironically) folds his Instagram aesthetic into the fabric of his film, it becomes clear that digital media hasn’t replaced so much as refined Los Angeles’ cinematic ambience, jettisoning it from any exclusively cinematic infrastructure to allow its citizens to live, breathe and commune in an atmosphere that is always, at any moment, on the cusp of congealing around an impromptu shooting or screening venue. For Spicer, Instagram is this cinematic ambience that never quite congeals around an exclusively cinematic infrastructure, which is perhaps why his own film, and his own cinematic address, is so unwilling or unable to conceive of film at all outside Instagram’s capacity to cinematise even the most casual encounters into a mise-en-scene that never completely constitutes itself.
Of course, that means that Ingrid’s real romance is with Los Angeles, and with the cultural heritage of Los Angeles that Instagram draws upon. More specifically, Instagram’s capacity to fuse participant and spectator into a new kind of hyper-aware subject often seems to reach back to an earlier era of Californian mindfulness, apotheosising a certain fantasy, so precious to the West Coast intelligentsia of the 70s, of achieving a perfectly seamless mediation of subject and environment, self and city, margin and centre. Perhaps that’s why Sloane seems so balanced, measured and peaceful when Ingrid finally meets her, as it becomes clear that Instagram is just one facet – if a pivotal facet – of a broader retro-hippy aesthetic that she has used to mediate herself through her adopted city. If anything, her husband Ezra, played by Wyatt Russell, seems more obnoxious for not being on social media, instead choosing to make bloated, hermetic art about social media, while eschewing social media itself as a promotional or publicity platform. Yet even these artworks, as reactionary as they are, end up testifying, despite themselves, to social media’s utopian and Californian heritage, since they consist largely of hashtags superimposed over items recovered from local thrift shops, restored to visibility under the sign of digital transaction.
It’s no surprise, then, to find that Sloane also had an artistic career, nor that her life on Instagram evolved out of her work as a professional photographer – a career that has taken her from Burning Man to Joshua Tree National Park, and whose residues see her and Ingrid bonding against a sequence of “desert vibes” that gradually displace the city in favour of a communal relationality that can’t be properly formulated in Los Angeles proper. By the time they upload their first tagged photograph – their most rapturous moment together – Instagram has somehow become an apotheosis of the most utopian and collective impulses of West Coast transcendentalism, a culmination of every desert community and socialist collective that defined itself against Los Angeles even as it depended upon it for its sustenance and spirit. So condensed and intensified is this history of Los Angeles utopia that its dystopian devolution is almost a fait accompli, just as Ingrid and Sloane’s rapport quickly reaches such orgasmic heights that it quickly exceeds the affective capacities of film as a medium, leaving us nowhere to go but down, a process that starts with Sloane confessing to Ingrid the crowning glory of all of her desert dreams, “a boutique hotel, filled with everything I love, and in which everything’s for sale, like my Instagram account in real life.”
Tellingly, this utopian horizon is framed in terms of one of the most canonical accounts of Hollywood decay and decadence – Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park, which details the stagnating luxury of Desert D’Or, a desert resort for the rich and famous, modelled roughly on Palm Springs. Taking her inspiration from Mailer, Sloane plans to name her boutique “Desert Door,” and yet in that very gesture lies its inevitable devolution as well, since, as the film proceeds, Ingrid gradually realises that this name hasn’t been confided to her alone, but to every friend that Sloane has made before her, and to all the friends with which Sloane gradually supplants her. Worse still, Sloane hasn’t even read The Deer Park, a revelation that removes the novel from the horizon of her utopian fantasy to the placeholder for a fantasy that was always hollow and doomed from the outset. In shock, Ingrid resorts to a number of desperate measures to regain Sloane’s affection, culminating with her actually buying Desert Door (or the house that Sloane intended for Desert Door), and camping out there until Sloane arrives back in the neighbourhood and forces one final, drastic confrontation.
In many ways, this penultimate scene plays as an inversion of Ingrid and Sloane’s first sublime selfie, as Ingrid finally realises that getting too close to an Instagram friend is inherently traumatic, if only because it reveals how much their allure depended precisely upon your displacement from them in the first place, just as the collective energy they radiate can only be properly experienced once you are subsumed back into the collective for which they ostensibly stand. As in so many films made about technology in the last decade, suicide now becomes a kind of end game for social media – either committing it or mobilising it; or, if possible, both, since that’s the final fantasy her, as it was in 13 Reasons Why. Taking a handful of pills to escape from the memory of Sloane’s betrayal, Ingrid posts one last message to her Instagram followers, only to wake up the next day in a hospital bed, where she discovers that her candour has skyrocketed her into a social media celebrity that Sloane can only dream about. It’s unclear, though, whether she has survived, whether this is her version of the afterlife, or whether the distinction between survival and destruction, or between life and death, has been collapsed into the total mediation of self and world, and total mindfulness, of Instagram itself. Certainly, Spicer’s decision to evacuate Ingrid of any subjectivity outside Instagram (we never find out anything about her that she doesn’t post online) really pays dividends here, as she becomes so radically equated with the medium that normal narrative signposts and resolution cues drop away, resulting in an entrancingly – and disturbingly – open-ended visions of Instagram, as radical as the digital medium from which its takes its inspiration, and with which it so disarmingly and casually identifies itself.