What do you do when a film gives you no clear path to a happy ending?
That’s the trouble with Ingrid Goes West, a film about identity that ultimately suffers from a frustrating POV problem that prevents it from truly clicking.
The well-acted story is a dark satire that touches on most of our modern social ills, including:
- our obsession with image
- social media addiction
- the perils of perpetual connectivity
- our inability to face our own flaws or form meaningful connections with others
- the increasingly impossible task of separating our “phone lives” from our “real lives”
That’s a lot of complex themes for any film to tackle, and Ingrid comes close to succeeding… but it ultimately falls a bit short due to one very large missing piece:
Every character in Ingrid Goes West is impossible to respect.
To be clear, this is not the same thing as a character being unlikable, nor do characters need to be likable in order to be interesting, compelling, or empathetic. (See: Don Draper, Walter White, or Cersei Lannister.)
The problem with Ingrid is that none of its characters have respectable goals or pursue respectable means to achieve them. (Note that I don’t necessarily mean “legal,” although some of Ingrid’s tactics definitely aren’t.)
But wait… who decides what’s respectable? Isn’t that subjective from person to person?
It is. Every storyteller and every audience has their own personal take on respectability. And the filmmakers of Ingrid Goes West make it pretty clear in their storytelling choices that the character we’re supposed to respect and cheer for here is… no one.
Let’s look at what each major character in Ingrid Goes West wants, what steps they take to achieve their desires, and why this all adds up to an empty equation.
[Spoilers ahead, obviously.]
You Can’t Always Get What You Want [and Maybe That’s a Good Thing]
Ingrid wants to be appreciated by someone she admires. She seeks validation by trying to befriend popular people on Instagram, going so far as to stalk them, ingratiate herself into their lives, and threaten them when they try to pull away.
Taylor wants to be seen as living an enviable life. She meticulously curates her persona so she’ll be seen as popular and worthy of being emulated, regardless of how accurately it represents her off-camera reality. When she gains access to more interesting and influential people, she starts blowing Ingrid off.
Ezra wants to be an artist, and he wants a meaningful relationship with Taylor. Unfortunately, he’s become so inundated with the fake plastic L.A. life — and he’s so accustomed to the halo effect of being Taylor’s husband — that he’s unable to think or act for himself, nearly paralyzed with disillusionment.
Nikki wants to live a consequence-free life of easy money and constant stimulation. He epitomizes modern bro narcissism and essentially serves as the film’s “villain,” even though his initial motivation to protect his sister from Ingrid’s obsessiveness is one of the few times anyone in this film shows demonstrable concern for anyone else.
Dan wants to be a screenwriter. He’s also seemingly the most practical and hardest traditionally-working character in the film, which should make him the story’s silver lining. But that makes his resulting behavior exceptionally frustrating.
The film’s writers basically require Dan to make continually dumb decisions just to further the plot. He blindly forgives Ingrid for everything she does, repeatedly, and he goes along with her crazy kidnapping plan simply because… why, exactly? Because he wants so badly to be needed by an obvious psychopath? Dan’s complicity in Ingrid’s schemes makes him seem stupid, disingenuous, or desperate.
All of which leads us to the real POV problem:
If we can’t respect any of the characters’ motivations, what fulfilling outcome are we supposed to be rooting for?
The Problem with Misguided Motivation
The film makes it blatantly clear from the very first scene that Ingrid is a psychopath. This means they’re essentially asking us to empathize with and root for the “villain.” That’s an interesting premise, but it results in a problematic audience experience for several reasons.
First, it forces the audience to acknowledge that what Ingrid really needs is some kind of medical assistance, which we’re pretty sure she’ll never seek on her own unless she gets institutionalized for causing someone else serious harm.
Second, if we acknowledge from the get-go that Ingrid is dangerously ill, then we spend the rest of the movie cringing at just how bad things are going to get for the people around her. But that’s complicated by the fact that we don’t really like or respect the people she surrounds herself with, which means we can’t really root for them, either.
Thus, Ingrid Goes West is an inversion of a suspense thriller, but played for laughs. Instead of rooting for Ingrid to either get help or get her comeuppance, we’re left rooting for… what, exactly?
It’s unclear what outcome we as the audience are supposed to be hoping for, because the world Ingrid constructs is one where no one wants anything reasonable to begin with. It’s as if the obvious “happy” ending would be for everyone to stop everything they’re doing and “grow up.” And that’s the final problem:
In a film with no one to root for, we can only conclude that the filmmakers are preaching to the audience.
The film seems to be saying, “sure, Ingrid is a troubled stalker… but image-obsessed people who abuse social media are, in their own way, just as bad. So you, audience member, should do none of these things.”
This POV places the audience in an unwinnable position.
If we do sympathize with any of the characters, we’re damned by association. But if we sympathize with none of them, then the film is basically asking us to pity / judge / loathe them. This puts Ingrid Goes West in the company of no-win films like Very Bad Things (where every character is deplorable) or Reefer Madness (which exists solely to decry the very lifestyle it’s accidentally helping to promote).
Dark comedies and social satire can be effective at spotlighting a society’s flaws. But when such a film presents no clear win condition other than “don’t play this game,” then your best support of its worldview is, paradoxically, to not see it in the first place.