I wonder if I could possibly get away with calling Ingrid Goes West a psychological horror film? A psychological thriller, for certain. Which I mention because I do feel like that's been lost a little bit in the discussion that has taken place all around the movie, which seems mostly content to treat the film as a social satire first and last, about how people who live their lives on social media have a broken sense of real-world interactions. And it is that thing, though more as a symptom, I think, than a cause. That is to say, it's a film that's first and foremost about a person with grave psychological issues, and only secondarily about how she's able to use social media to disguise those issues, even thrive because of them. Basically, I think it's a question of whether you take the film as a comic version of Single White Female, with the stalker as the hapless villain, or if you instead take her as the biggest victim of all, a woman desperately in need of support that the 21st Century is well-suited to deny her.

The film gives you plenty of evidence in either direction, but the central fact remains both ways: Ingrid Thorburn is a hell of a character, and Aubrey Plaza does a phenomenal job of playing her. I will frankly declare right now that Ingrid Goes West is frequently not good enough to deserve her; the film has a disappointing third act and a completely generic aesthetic, but we'll get to those. For right now, let's focus on Ingrid in all her messy, self-destructive glory. We don't actually get to know much of all about her; the only biographical detail we can confidently point to is that she lived with her mother her whole adult life, and this has ended only with her mother's death by heart attack while Ingrid was cooling her heels in a mental hospital. And she was there because, as we saw in the opening scene, she assaulted a minor Instagram celebrity for not inviting her to said Instagrammer's wedding. For Ingrid has absolutely no friends, and when any attention is paid to her at all on any social media platform, that's enough for her to form an intensely deep, and very obviously unhealthy and unsustainable connection with the person who has glanced her way.

The bulk of the film concerns Ingrid's mostly successful attempt to inveigle her way into the life of photographer and LA lifestyle maven Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), beginning with some light stalking before moving into dog theft. The screenplay by David Branson Smith & director Matt Spicer covers a whole lot of ground, but there's really not much more to the actual story than that: most of the film's running time is devoted to watching Ingrid's behavior, and allowing us to know her better as a result of her very disturbing action. It's a comedy, legitimately and truly, but a comedy based in skin-crawling horror; Ingrid is the only character whose perspective we're ever exposed to, and we're trapped with her, helplessly watching her endless bad choices, as thoroughly as we're trapped with the psychopathic killer in Maniac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. We're chuckling instead of puking in disgust, but there's a thinner gap there than you might guess.

The satire is focused less on "oh boy, some people take Instagram too seriously!! 😜😂" than on "oh boy, we live in a world that rewards sociopathic behavior that's an obvious cri de cœur from a deeply lonely soul, and therefore provides no mechanism to help that person rather than enable their destructive choices", and Plaza's portrayal of Ingrid as all desperation, panic, reaction, and wiry alertness makes her a very lonely soul indeed. She's plainly incapable of engaging in even the most basic human interaction, and Plaza's refusal to ask for sympathy - her eagerness, in fact, to encourage us to view Ingrid as something like a wild animal, barely hiding her bared teeth through a great deal of conscious effort - makes the character vastly more interesting than she might be. And, to be sure, funnier; the film gets by on the sneaky, poisonous humor of a William Thackeray novel, where we're invited to laugh at what we know to be mostly evil behavior, by virtue of privileging our knowledge above all of the victims of that evil.

The thing is, Ingrid Goes West does end up trying to do more than simply give us a more sympathetic Becky Sharpe, and I'm not sure at all that it succeeds. The biggest problem for the film by far is its third act, where it attempts to take a dive into Coenesque black comedy that doesn't work at all: it's too damn broad, and the plot contortions end up being disappointingly pat and even clichéd (if you think, in this moment, that you know what happens in the last 5-10 minutes of the film, sight unseen, you're almost certainly right). It's where the film actually becomes a simple satire of social media culture, rather than using that satire as a conduit for diagnosing Ingrid.

Beyond that, the film casts a wider net than its prepared for. Taylor and her husband Ezra O'Keefe (Wyatt Russell) are at the center of a parody of Angelino materialist-hippie culture that simply can't dig in as much as it needs to avoid leaning into generic "boy, L.A., what the fuck?" gags: the film boxes itself out from seriously considering anybody other than Ingrid as a fully-realised person, and so Taylor and Ezra can only ever be parodies of types. There's even less that can be made from the subplot in which Ingrid engineers a romantic relationship with her landlord Dan (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), a Batman enthusiast and aspiring screenwriter; Jackson's performance is outrageously good (and in only his second film, after Straight Outta Compton), giving the character a personality, charisma, and a sense of charm that the screenplay doesn't arrange for, and even managing to sell us on the idea that this man would be taken in by Ingrid's transparent lies, at least enough for the narrative to keep functioning. But it's literally all on Jackson that the character works.

And beyond that, the film is just not that interesting to look at. A story about Instagrammers, and the idea that the images of things are the entirety of human experience, is pretty much obligated to present the materialist L.A trappings of the plot with some kind of flash and style. But Spicer's direction leans on banal handheld naturalist trappings, and he and cinematographer Bryce Fortner allow the characters to drown in the indifferent widescreen compositions.

None of this detracts from the film's strength as a character study. But it certainly doesn't augment it, either. Ingrid Goes West is admirable in a lot ways - it's not too long, for which I am invariably grateful in the bloated world of modern comedy, and the comedy all derives strictly from character - but I can't bring myself to love it, and I feel like I was real close to doing so.