Reviews

Sundance 2017: 'Ingrid Goes West' + 'Bitch'

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Sundance continues the Hollywood tradition of exploring mental illness with Ingrid Goes West and Bitch.


Ingrid Goes West

Director: Matt Spicer
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Sundance Premiere: 2017-01-20
Year: 2017

Bitch

Director: Marianna Palka
Cast: Marianna Palka, Jason Ritter, Jaime King
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Sundance Premiere: 2017-01-20
Year: 2017

Hollywood is no stranger to depicting mental illness. From films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) to a A Beautiful Mind (2001), Hollywood has a rich tradition of honoring filmmakers who tackle the complexities of a fractured psyche. Sundance is no exception, and this year’s festival features several films with mentally ill protagonists, including Ingrid Goes West and Bitch.

Ingrid Goes West is a stylish updating of Single White Female (1992) for the social media age, only played for laughs. It’s a risky idea that fails miserably for the first half of Matt Spicer’s directorial debut. Only after Spicer begins treating his subject matter like a psychological tragedy does the film start to gel.

Ingrid (a decidedly unglamorous Aubrey Plaza) is a sick woman. She takes no value from her own life, choosing, instead, to live vicariously through the vapid hashtags and gratuitous selfies on Instagram and the like. Ingrid compulsively pours through each post with an eye toward emulation; crafting her life into an eerie facsimile of the disembodied faces and shrines to consumerism. When the objects of her obsession become rightly concerned and block Ingrid, she retaliates with physical and psychological warfare, such as crashing a wedding and spraying mace into the bride’s eyes.

Contrary to what the filmmakers think, watching Ingrid indulge her illness is not funny. Occasionally, Plaza’s natural gifts as a physical comedienne shine through, but mostly it’s like watching a psychological train wreck and being expected to laugh at the carnage. Ingrid goes West to pursue her latest idealized fantasy; a California socialite named Taylor (the perfectly cast Elizabeth Olsen). There, she infiltrates Taylor’s life by kidnapping her dog and waiting for the reward sign to be posted. The obsessive cataloging and assuming of Taylor’s identity is played so realistically by Spicer that it could serve as a cautionary tale for Internet stalking. Unfortunately, Spicer is so terrified of entering Afterschool Special territory that he ladles a layer of leering sarcasm over the genuine menace.

Spicer and his co-writer, David Branson Smith, introduce a few desperate gags to manufacture laughs, such as goofy car wrecks and barroom debauchery, but they’re too broad and predictable to leave a mark. The only comedic respite comes from Ingrid’s Batman obsessed landlord, Dan (a revelatory O'Shea Jackson Jr.).

To say that Jackson is magnificent would be an understatement; he steals every scene with his infectious smile and pitch-perfect comedic timing. While his character isn’t particularly nuanced, Jackson nails every note while creating the only relatable presence in the entire film. When Jackson demands of his lovemaking partner, “Tell me that Gotham needs me!” he brings the house down. His scenes with Plaza are delicate and thoughtful, allowing Ingrid an excuse to finally reveal her buried personality.

It’s not until midway through Ingrid Goes West that Spicer finally finds his footing. Gone are the lame gags and sarcasm; replaced by the devastating fallout from Ingrid’s illness. This is a woman who isn’t merely wounded, but quite literally broken. The palpable realization that she has no control over her thoughts finds Plaza delivering dramatic scenes with sincerity and bravery. In these moments, you appreciate social media objectification for the scourge it truly is.

Did we need the comic lead-up to fully experience the dramatic impact of Ingrid Goes West, or was it simply an effort by the filmmakers to create a more accessible experience? Regardless of their intentions, the depiction of mental illness for comic effect nearly derailed what is an otherwise important reflection on the dangers of social media.

If Ingrid Goes West skims across the precipice of madness, Bitch plunges into the abyss with gleeful abandon. Marianna Palka wrote, directed, and stars in this deceptively observant critique of masculinity in the 21st Century.

Marianna Palka in Bitch (2017)

How to discuss a movie like Bitch?

It’s a visceral viewing experience that will either leave you exhilarated or exasperated. Nearly a quarter of the Sundance press corps fled the theater like they were late for a date with Bob Redford. The remaining audience was powerless to look away or comprehend what was unfolding before them.

The carnage begins with a failed hanging attempt by Jill (Palka); a beleaguered housewife who shepherds her philandering, uninvolved husband Bill (Jason Ritter) and their four rambunctious kids through the excruciating mundanities of suburban life. Adding insult to her failed suicide attempt, Bill thinks nothing of finding Jill in bed with a makeshift noose still around her neck. His life is a series of compartments, all of which revolve around his juvenile need for immediate gratification.

Even more ominous is the neighborhood dog that stares at Jill from their front lawn. The mutt implores her to escape the confines of her miserable life and run free with the other strays. Finally consumed by desperation, Jill suffers a psychotic break and transforms into a savage dog! She snarls, barks, and wallows in her own feces. Her terrified family can only lock her in the basement and start stockpiling dog food.

Nearly everything about Bitch is disconcerting. Palka (Always Worthy(2015), Good Dick (2008)) employs every trick in the directorial handbook to convey the disintegration of Jill’s world. Dizzying panoramas, vertiginous angles, and a wild jazz score that feels largely improvised whisk you through the corridors of a broken mind. But a funny thing happens after the first calamitous act of Bitch… the bitch disappears.

You see, this isn’t Jill’s story. This is Bill’s story.

Bill is a man who doesn’t even know which school his children attend. When faced with the specter of termination at his high-powered company, Bill gladly sacrifices an entire department just to save his own neck. He’s an entitled, arrogant, aloof asshole who is more concerned about the inconvenience of Jill’s psychosis than her actual well-being.

His gradual transformation from man-baby to emotional stalwart is both painful and convincing. Ritter is a handsome hybrid, evoking something between a stammering Tom Cruise and a flailing Jim Carrey. His epic meltdown in the family minivan, in which he curses Jill for having the audacity to abandon him, is absolutely terrifying; a moment quickly diffused by the hilarious realization that his youngest son witnessed the entire diatribe from the backseat. Ritter switches gears effectively, with a performance that suits this over-the-top material perfectly.

Both Ingrid Goes West and Bitch use mental illness as a subtext for broader social issues, but Palka brings an added fearlessness to Bitch that Ingrid Goes West lacks. Her examination of millennial masculinity is nothing short of ferocious, with an entire generation of women literally driven insane by their men’s haplessness. Despite the lack of subtlety, Palka never preaches, either. Bitch is a singular artistic statement that isn’t overly concerned about your sensibilities or opinions.

In other words, a film like Bitch is the reason Sundance was created.

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