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Watching “Ingrid Goes West,” it’s easy to feel superior to Aubrey Plaza’s title character. Morally blank and emotionally unhinged, Ingrid Thorburn is obsessed with the sun-splashed Instagram life of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). She’s so obsessed she moves to Venice, Calif., to try to enter that life. Is it possible to be “closer” than a friend already is on social media? Ingrid aims to find out.

Maybe feelings of superiority aren’t quite justified. The movies, too, are an obsessive one-way relationship. The audience keeps staring at people on a screen. The people on the screen couldn’t care less. Sound familiar? It’s just that the screen Ingrid stares at is a lot smaller, and the movie Taylor stars in is a version of her own life.


Ingrid spends much of the movie finding out how accurate that version is — or isn’t. Avocado toast for breakfast may or may not build strong bodies 12 ways. Naming a dog Rothko (yes, like the painter) says a lot about the owners — Taylor has a hunky husband (Wyatt Russell) — though what that may be is open to debate.

“Ingrid Goes West” starts to go south with the arrival of Taylor’s brother, Nicky. Until then, first-time director Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith, with whom Spicer wrote the script, make sure that you never quite know where things are heading next. That’s a compliment.

Nicky’s braying bro-ness gives the plot a necessary pivot, but Billy Magnussen works overtime to make the character a joke as well as a pain. O’Shea Jackson Jr., as Ingrid’s amiable landlord and eventual boyfriend, offers a welcome corrective on the boys-will-be-boys front. He provides another kind of plot pivot, but by then contrivance has become the order of the day.

The obsessive one-way relationship is its own movie mini-genre. It boasts some notable titles: “All About Eve” (1950), “Strangers on a Train” (1951), “The King of Comedy” (1982). “Ingrid” aims to do for social media what “Eve” does for theater, “Strangers” for murder, and “King” for celebrity. While not in the class of the first two — an Instagram feed from Robert Walker’s Bruno, in “Strangers,” now that would be must-follow — “Ingrid” has the dry, chilly feel of “King,” and Plaza’s character could be the daughter of Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin. (Who’d the mother be? Let’s not go there.)

The movies have yet to figure out what to do with Plaza and her slightly sour intelligence. Skepticism in a female has always tended to make Hollywood uneasy, and the brows above Plaza’s almond eyes seem almost permanently raised. Another Olsen movie opened this month, “Wind River,” and she’s fine in it. But Plaza really could have taken Olsen’s FBI agent to some very interesting places.


Plaza remains best known for her seven seasons on “Parks and Recreation.” Television, especially television these days, is much more flexible than movies. Now 33, Plaza can still get away with playing an ingenue (that’s what Ingrid is, a toxic ingenue). She can do comedy. She can do drama. She’s best of all, as here, at combining both.

“Ingrid Goes West” doesn’t offer Plaza a breakout role so much as a dig-deeper role. There’s a bravery to her performance that recalls De Niro as Pupkin. Actors really, really like to be liked — and understood. Ingrid is intensely unlikable — and opaque. That’s what’s most frightening about her. Plaza, one of the film’s producers, doesn’t shrink from that. She does nothing to disguise the extent to which Ingrid can be highly unattractive — in appearance as well as manner. This is anything but a vanity performance.

Yet Plaza doesn’t overdo it either. Caricature can be an actorly escape hatch, a way of saying, “I really don’t mean it.” Plaza does. So does Olsen, and Taylor ends up seeming even creepier than Ingrid. (Rothko? Really?) You don’t necessarily buy that Taylor would let someone like Ingrid into her life. This is a fundamental problem, except that Plaza and Olsen are so good together — dark and light, needy and heedless, out and in — that by the time you do notice, that’s the whole point.


★ ★ ½

Directed by Matt Spicer. Written by David Branson Smith and Spicer. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen. At Kendall Square, Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 97 minutes. R (language, drug use, sexual content, disturbing behavior).

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.