“If you don’t have anyone to share anything with, then what’s the point in living?” So asks Ingrid Thorburn, the titular lead of Matt Spicer’s debut feature, Ingrid Goes West, that sees release this Friday. It’s a question for the ages—but perhaps especially for an era when online “sharing,” “following,” and “friending” overwhelm our social stratosphere, and even more for those, like Ingrid, who know no other world. With a satirical bite that crackles from its hyperkinetic trailer (think Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers with a Cali soul), Ingrid Goes West could’ve easily become a film that wears its irony on its sleeveless romper: too slick to be serious, too quick to be profound.
But such an assumption would have to overlook what remains one of the most complex—and compelling—protagonists on-screen this year. When our semi-heroine swiftly becomes a total stalker—heading to Los Angeles to befriend Instagram It Girl Taylor Sloane (played to filtered perfection by Elizabeth Olsen)—viewers are forced to reconcile judgment with self-recognition. Ingrid is at once a highly original, tortured individual and a metonym for a zeitgeist taken to its extreme. When three out of four teenagers are plugged into social media (and teen depression rates skyrocketing), her plight is risible only insofar as we can dismiss her as “crazy”—which, thankfully, the dark comedy never lets us (completely) do.
Ingrid’s script, written by Spicer and David Branson Smith, won the screenwriting award at Sundance, and quickly caught the eye of Aubrey Plaza, who came on both producer and lead—lassoing Olsen as costar and O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ingrid’s adorably unlikely love interest. We talked with Spicer and Plaza about the film at New York City’s Crosby Hotel.
VICE: Ingrid Goes West resembles a darker, digital-age Clueless—lampooning the excesses of a generation, while ultimately sympathetic to its central character. Matt, were you consciously infusing social commentary as you wrote the screenplay?
Matt Spicer: Clueless was a really big film for me growing up—it was super-important and hilarious. I’m from just outside Philadelphia, but my grandparents lived in Orange County for three years. When I was a kid, every summer we went out there, and that was my first impression of California. It was always a place where I was like, “I gotta get out there.”
Clueless provided a window inside that world. You could laugh at it from afar, but it was also so accurate, if in a heightened way. Same goes for Heathers and other films like that. Dave and I weren’t directly referencing Clueless as we were writing the script, but we consciously dressed the characters in Clueless outfits near the end. As a film, it’s a true modern classic.
This is a film that represents social media in an all-encompassing way. Aubrey, as a producer, what drew you to this film and character?
Aubrey Plaza: I loved the script so much—it’s really fun to read. All the characters were unique, and they felt like real people to me. I was really drawn to the character of Ingrid, and loved the idea being in a movie that is almost entirely from her perspective. She’s in almost every scene of the film; the world is through her eyes. I was interested in playing a character with a real arc and journey who had really serious problems.
As Ingrid, you seamlessly shuffle between sad and sympathetic and hilariously, scarily pathetic. Were you aware of these shifts, or did they take place incidentally?
I’d say the latter. I never approach a character tonally—like, “Oh, I’m going to be funny,” or “I’m going to be serious.” It’s just a total commitment to the human being that I’m trying to portray. For me, comedy comes out of truth. The more you commit, the funnier it is—even if it’s sad, uncomfortable, or pathetic. It’s about putting Ingrid in different situations and behaving in line with her own mental disorder and motivations. Because of my improv and comedy background, there’s a part of my brain that always thinks, “How can this be funny?” But I wasn’t conscious of that.
How old did you see Ingrid as, Matt? It seemed undefined.
Spicer: We described her in the script as maybe being 28. We wanted her to be old enough that it was dark and sad that she hasn’t really started her life at this point—we wanted her to be stunted. If she was too young, it would be like, “Oh, she’s just figuring things out,” but if she was too old, it would be like, “This person could be a serial killer.” We wanted to find a sweet spot where it was like, “She’s definitely confused, but there’s still hope for her in putting her life together.”
Plaza: Yes, I think “stunted” is the right word. That was also a big discussion I had with the costume designer when we talked about the clothing that Ingrid would wear. She’s still wearing her clothes from high school, but she’s a woman in the world who’s still wearing her high school sweatpants. A lot of that was meant to be signifiers for her depression.
Spicer: I love the dress that you chose for when Ingrid first comes to LA and she’s riding
the bicycle. It’s like what a kid would choose to wear—like, “Look, I’m in a pretty
What do you both like about her as a character?
“Likable” is the maybe the wrong word—for me, I think it’s “relatable”. There are so many male anti-heroes out there—Tony Soprano, Walter White—where it doesn’t matter that they’re not likable. They’re relatable. But there’s pressure on women to be likable too. I can relate to Ingrid’s pain, sadness, and loneliness, and I understand why she’s doing these extreme things—even though I don’t think what she’s doing is right. What’s key is that we understand the pain and confusion driving it, and I hope that that comes through.
Plaza: There’s a moment when she’s on the date with Dan Pinto, when the waitress comes up and Ingrid immediately shoos her away. I really loved Ingrid in that moment. She’s really aggressive and goes after what she wants. Sometimes it’s in a creepy, unhealthy way, but sometimes it’s endearing, too.
Spicer: One of the most exciting things for me was Aubrey and O’Shea’s chemistry. It was meant to be in the script, but it felt like we had lightning in a bottle. Dan brings out the best in Ingrid, and anytime she’s around him, you root for them and the version of herself that she is with him. She feels safe with him—he sees her and gets her.
The Atlantic recently asked, “Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation?” Both of you are the same age and grew up without mobile devices. After the process of writing and making this film, what’s your perspective on social media now?
Plaza: I’m so grateful that I didn’t grow up with it. That seems really terrifying to me. It’s really helpful that Matt and I didn’t grow up with it because we have an awareness that others don’t have. It’s not in my nature to use it. I feel uncomfortable, and I never feel like I know what I’m doing—whereas my sister, who’s 20, is a natural and understands it as part of her life. Younger people are operating on multiple dimensions at all times.
Spicer: At Bonnaroo, I saw a girl of around fourteen or fifteen having a full conversation with her friend while posting stuff on Snapchat, with a speed and dexterity that was unbelievable. The phone was like a part of her—like a bionic arm, which was pretty cool. But I will say that every twenty to thirty years, there’s some new technology that pops up and everyone says it’s the end of culture and civilization as we know it. The reality is, we’re still here. We’re going to be okay. It’s definitely going to change things, but rather than crying about how smartphones are ruining everything, people should take more responsibility and say, “Now that it’s here, here’s how I want to live with it, and shape it.” We have the power to determine our own future, rather than just wishing technology would go away. It’s just not going to.