‘Everything about you is a fucking lie okay! Your brother is a drug addict, your husband is an alcoholic who hates you and you pretend to be some cool LA chick but you’re full of shit. When you moved here you were lame and basic and you had no friends. You were just like me.’
HEAVY SPOILERS FOR THE FILM INGRID GOES WEST
The term ‘Parasocial Interaction’ was originally coined in 1956 to describe the strange dynamic that occured in the early days of television and radio, where audiences began to develop a one sided connection with the popular hosts, an imagined friendship and comradery with a person who has no idea the other even existed.
Long since then – with the advent of social media and the internet, para-social interaction has adapted and altered in a new and strange manner. While it may be difficult to articulate this development, it is something the film Ingrid Goes West does with near perfection.
The film presents itself as a comedy, which it certainly is. But more than that it is a social commentary and a very tragic film about a woman who is desperate to escape the loneliness and isolation she feels from her mother’s death – she forms a para-social bond with a stranger on Instagram, a chic LA girl called Taylor. Although, it is uncomfortable and depressing but brings out the best in the film. As Ingrid’s obsession and para-social relationship with Taylor intensifies, she alters entire aspects of herself to become Taylor’s friend. She even manages to worm her way into her life, determined to make their imagined para-social bond manifest. But rarely is the story as simple. In fact, her desperation to keep up with the lie and friendship, leads to a whole other host of problems.
It would have been too easy for the film makers to make all the characters in the film two dimensional. For instance, make Taylor perfectly kind and flawless in order to show that the actions that Ingrid takes towards her are heinous, but they do not do this. In fact, almost every character in the film is deeply flawed to some degree and painfully human. While it is Ingrid who bears the brunt of the limelight, it is only towards the end that we see the full picture and understand that it is not just Ingrid who has fabricated this persona and relationship for Taylor, but Taylor has done the same. In their final confrontation, Ingrid tries to make an appeal for their friendship. However, Taylor remarks that their friendship was never real because it was entirely based on Ingrid’s lies. Ingrid bites back and says Taylor herself is also ‘full of shit’ and there is a good amount of truth to that statement.
Entire aspects of Taylor’s personality are warped and borrowed from the people around her, much of what she posts and reports about her daily life online is a carefully calculated lie, designed to make herself look as appealing and put together as possible. But the truth is that she is an enabler to her drug addicted brother and a liar. The moment Taylor meets someone with a large social media following, she latches on to them and abandons Ingrid. Even her life’s dream and favourite books are not her own, they belong to her husband. Her husband woefully misses the old Taylor and drowns his sorrows in booze, lamenting how unhappy he is in their marriage, a feeling which he can never express to her truly. Naturally, Ingrid is the biggest fraudster of all and is severely unhinged. The film doesn’t try to present her as anything else but it does add layers to the deep rooted issue at the heart of the film. The problem lies not with Ingrid but the entire structure of social media and the way it morphs and distorts the relationships between what you see and what you know and how much it encourages that para-social dynamic. It is about how hard some people try to remain authentic on their platform, even if it’s all a fabrication, we still ultimately buy into it and idolise this false version that we want to see.
Even the relationship between Taylor and Ingrid is not the only para-social dynamic presented in the film, with another, albeit more comedic, para-social relationship between Ingrid’s landlord Dan and Batman. While it’s easy to brush off this smaller aspect of the film as just a funny side plot, it’s important to note that this relationship is also here to tell the audience that not all para-social dynamics need to be unhealthy or unhinged. It shows that they are more akin to a coping mechanism for many. Dan expresses how he looked to Batman and his persona as a way of grieving with the intense loss of his parents as a young child and to pretending to be him provided him with strength because he could rely on another persona to mask the true pain. As an adult, he still uses this, and forms much of his personality around Batman and even asks Ingrid to call him Bruce during their first sexual interaction. This is similar to Ingrid’s dynamic – the death of her mother left her feeling lonely and isolated. So in turn she looked to figures on Instagram to give her the instant gratification and friendship she was desperately seeking.
Ingrid is not a good person and that is clear but everything about her is understandable. In this day and age where so much of social media fame thrives off of the feeling of authenticity, of promoting that imagined relationship between the viewer and the performer, it would be dangerous to say that the problems lie only in the individuals and not the way social media encourages us to function and behave. Who among us hasn’t at some point formed a para-social bond with someone famous? Looked at them as one would a friend or family member despite having never even met them? I can guarantee that for all of us, we have done this at least once and if you say you haven’t, you’re lying.
By the end of the film, when Ingrid’s attempt on her own life brings forth an entire movement called ‘#IAmIngrid’ there is a strange grey area. Some can see it as a victorious and happy ending – Ingrid finally being loved and cared for as the person she is, but it can also be seen as bittersweet. The validation from strangers online is not a quick fix for the underlying problems that make us turn to these untouchable figures we see around us for friendship. They always ultimately lead to heartbreak, the moment when reality hits and you suddenly realise that the time you invested into the relationship with someone you idolised was meaningless, it can be crushing. While para-social relationships aren’t good, they’re still frighteningly easy to lapse into and Ingrid Goes West is a perfect example of what happens when attempting to navigate the strange space of para-social strangeness and how it can go horribly wrong with hilarious and saddening consequences.