Note: This article contains major plot revelations for Ingrid Goes West.
Say what you will about the Academy Awards, but in recent years they’ve been on a pretty good streak of honoring movies that don’t fit snugly into Oscar stereotypes. The likes of The Artist and Argo may still coast to victory sometimes, but contemporary winners like 12 Years A Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, and The Departed add up to an eclectic batch of films that only feel like inevitable Best Picture winners in retrospect. Would that it were less simple for the acting categories. Plenty of great performances get in, but the easiest path to Best Actor or Best Actress is still to play a real person, put on an elaborate accent, and/or fake some kind of physical, medical, or mental condition.
Even for a movie year like 2017, in which a kickass assembly of Best Actress contenders seems assured, plenty of the potential nominees fall into predictable categories: the performers playing real-life “characters” (Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding); the brilliant ingénue (Saoirse Ronan as a conflicted teenager); the physical challenge (Sally Hawkins as a mute); Meryl Streep (this year also playing a real-life figure, Katherine Graham). It doesn’t really matter that all of these performances fall into various Oscar wheelhouses—they’re all still award-worthy. But there’s a near-impossible nominee who could split the difference between what the Academy almost always does and what the Academy almost never does: Aubrey Plaza, playing the title character in the social-discomfort comedy Ingrid Goes West.
Ingrid Thorburn, Plaza’s character, isn’t given a definitive onscreen diagnosis in the movie, and Ingrid Goes West isn’t a typical illness chronicle like Still Alice or The Theory Of Everything. But Ingrid, who the movie introduces assaulting an Instagram acquaintance at her wedding before getting committed to a hospital, clearly struggles with mental health issues. The movie isn’t about her treatment, either, but a backslide that turns into something worse. Once Ingrid leaves the hospital, she fixates on another target, Instagram sorta-celebrity Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), and hastily moves out to Los Angeles to insinuate herself into her life.
Late in the movie, this leads to some heartbreaking work from Plaza as her stalking-engineered friendship with Taylor and accompanying imitation of life in Los Angeles falls to spectacular pieces. By that point, the movie is flirting with tragedy, and Plaza is acting out sort of a millennial version of a showy breakdown scene, leading up to a suicide attempt. But as with a lot of great performances, Plaza lights the fuse of her emotional fireworks far earlier in the movie.
Playing a lonely social outcast, Plaza spends many of her introductory scenes acting opposite a phone screen, something she shares with her fellow should-be Oscar contender Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper. Given how tedious it can be to watch real people fiddle with technology (and the lack of Personal Shopper-style ghostly mystery), this is a risky strategy. But Plaza is so expressive while, say, puzzling through whether to write “hahahaha,” “hehehehe,” or “heh heh” on an Instagram comment, or barely containing the elation she feels when she realizes Taylor has tagged her in a photo, that her solo act becomes compelling. With her split-second expressions of self-disgust, dissatisfaction, and pleasure, she reveals a particular (and very contemporary) anguish over mediated communication, exacerbated by her abrupt, sometimes impatient interactions with much of the rest of the world.
Acting in a kind of faux-isolation is pretty awards-friendly. So many Oscar-winning performances feel like de facto one-actor shows: Think of Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, or this year’s possible winner, Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. (It’s not that the other actors in those movies aren’t good, so much as they don’t ever seem to matter.) In Ingrid, Plaza’s co-stars, especially Olsen and O’Shea Jackson Jr., do excellent work in their own right. This makes the movie feel like less of a desperate showcase for one performer. Some of Plaza’s most interesting moments happen in isolation, but that’s because the movie is about isolation—a simple point, to be sure, but an effective one.
There’s meta-performance all over Ingrid Goes West, particularly well-illustrated in the scene in which Ingrid first happens upon Taylor at some kind of Los Angeles hipster boutique. She tries to play it cool while still nudging herself into some kind of interaction, resulting in a stiff, uncertain strut of a walk and the world’s least convincing flip through a book, with words that seem to be escaping from her mouth rather than properly forming into thoughts. Her self-conscious modulation makes the short scene a brilliant study of both behavior and “acting,” exactly the kind of shifts that someone like Taylor can accommodate masterfully (whether she realizes she’s doing it or not) and that someone like Ingrid cannot.
In other moments, Plaza, best known for comedy, goes broader; her Batman-themed sex scene with Jackson isn’t exactly a ready-made Oscar clip, even though it’s wildly funny and strange in a way that helps to define both her character and the areas where Ingrid’s identity becomes slippery and confused. The movie’s comedy is really where Plaza is likely to lose even the adventurous Oscar voters giving her film a chance. Performances with funny moments can get by, but movies that go after full-fledged comic set pieces and mine discomfort for laughs (even buttressed by plenty of serious stuff) are a trickier sell, seemingly requiring a certain subservience to the material. Look at the closest thing to an exception to this rule: Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Silver Linings Playbook, which won five years ago and bears some superficial resemblance to Plaza’s work here. Lawrence plays a young woman with some mental health issues, dominates the movie when she’s onscreen, and gets a lot of big laughs. But her character essentially serves a story told from a male point of view. That story has laughs of its own, but wouldn’t be nearly as funny without her. She’s free to play to the movie’s romantic-comedy leanings because she’s not really its lead character.
Plaza’s performance goes a long way toward making Ingrid Goes West work, and it works a hell of a lot better than so many other acting-showcase movies, this year’s Darkest Hour included. It also checks far more Academy boxes than voters may realize; in addition to the mental health angle, Plaza is stretching far from her Parks And Recreation persona as a surly, deadpan troublemaker, working in an awkward, striking physicality to her performance that runs counter to her intentionally low-effort stillness as April Ludgate. It takes confidence to secure a career in comedy, and Plaza impressively masks that confidence to play a woman who struggles even with casually flashing a peace sign for a photo.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a movie primarily because of a terrific lead performance, and a film that builds itself around such a performance can be constructed with great skill and intelligence, as Ingrid is. A nomination for Plaza would honor a weirder, funnier, more surprising bit of acting than traditional awards bait while still indulging the spectacle of an actor out there on her own. Plaza is young enough to play the ingénue, physically gifted enough to convey her mental state outside of dialogue, and while Ingrid isn’t technically a real person, her living through Instagram stalking and would-be curation certainly feels real. Her only problem, really, is not being Meryl Streep.