Elizabeth Olsen, left, and Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West (Neon)

The directorial debut of Matt Spicer, winner of a screenplay prize at this year’s Sundance, is a dark comedy centered around social media, in particular the photo sharing app Instagram. Think of Ingrid Goes West as a Black Mirror episode, only it’s more science-reality than science fiction.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Ingrid Thorburn, who seems to have never made any friends growing up, aside from her mother. Now mom is dead, and Ingrid has no people skills whatsoever. She interacts with the world primarily through her smartphone, scouring Instagram for friends. When Ingrid sees a comment or a like on the app, she takes it much more to heart than users are expected to.

Which is why when one of her Instagram friends doesn’t invite her to her wedding, Ingrid crashes it and assaults the bride with pepper spray.

That’s just in the first couple minutes. The story picks up with Ingrid after she’s done a stint in a mental hospital, and she’s back in her big, empty house, eating junk food. Having learned nothing from her treatment, she gets right back on her phone and starts looking for a new obsession. Enter Instagram celebrity Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a California girl who spends her days walking on the beach —no, wait, she spends her days taking photos of herself walking on the beach. She uses all the right angles, the right filters; she speaks the hashtag lingo; quotes famous authors; and she definitely makes sure to name-drop the brands she is wearing, because she is a professional Instagram “influencer.” Her actual job is to promote products. She is a living advertisement.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, Ingrid is eating these images up. On Instagram, Taylor has the perfect life. If Ingrid were to befriend her, then surely she would also have a better life. So she takes the modest inheritance her mother left her, flies to Los Angeles, and finds the creepiest way possible to wedge herself into Taylor’s life—by kidnapping Taylor’s dog and pretending to have found it.

There’s plenty of foreshadowing to reveal just how far Ingrid is willing to go to claim her place as Taylor’s BFF. You’ll find yourself gut-laughing at some of Ingrid’s schemes, and at the same time feel very much disturbed by them. If Ingrid had been a remake of Single White Female, no one would have scoffed at that. In fact, the similarities are so striking that when Ingrid’s charade is discovered by one character, he makes a reference to Ingrid pulling some “Single White Female shit.”

Aubrey Plaza is having her moment this year, as this film comes right after The Little Hours, also a very funny, intelligent film. Plaza’s Ingrid displays a full range, from dazzling herself up, when she wants to look conventionally pretty, to becoming terrifying, when she takes her machinations too far.  Elizabeth Olsen is always a delight playing the fake, vapid Taylor, a woman so caught up in social media it has taken over her life.

The real breakout performances are by two of the supporting actors. First, there is O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Dan Pinto, Ingrid’s constantly-weed-vaping landlord. Known best from playing his own father, Ice Cube, in Straight Outta Compton, Jackson turns out a charming performance as Dan, a wannabe screenwriter whose singular passion is Batman. He is so fixated on the caped avenger that most of his dialogue is centered around Batman metaphors, and he has some of the most quotable lines, along the lines of: “Girl, at first I thought you were Catwoman, but you turned out to be Two-Face.” As a character, Dan could have easily been one-note, but Jackson’s performance and the conscientious screenwriting fleshes him out to be the stoner with the heart of gold, and the moral compass of the film.

The other standout performance is Billy Magnussen as Nicky, Taylor’s freeloading, coked-up brother. Nicky is the king of douches. He wears bro tanks, short-shorts, and seems whacked-out on every type of upper known to mankind. As shallow and self-obsessed as Taylor may be, Nicky cranks it up to 11. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Magnussen or screenwriter Spicer based him on Conrad Hilton III, who had that fiasco on an airplane two years ago.

Spicer’s film comes right as we’re beginning to see a backlash against social media, especially because misleading information can proliferate and influence public opinion. While Ingrid and Taylor both exemplify abuses of social media, the film is fair-and-square in reminding us of Ingrid’s mental instability.

In a telling scene, Taylor and Ingrid are driving from Joshua Tree and the 1990s ballad “All My Life” by K-Ci and JoJo starts playing on the radio. The two new best friends sing along to the tune, but Ingrid, during the lyrics, “All my life/I prayed for someone like you/and I hope that you feel the same way, too,” looks dead-on at Taylor. The song playing on the radio is random and could be seen as inconsequential, but to Ingrid it means everything. If a person like Ingrid freaks out just over a song coming on over an old-fashioned radio, then the social media of today is a deadly weapon in her hands.

Directed by Matt Spicer
Written by David Branson Smith and Spicer
Released by Neon
USA. 97 min. Rated R
With Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, and Billy Magnussen