While shows like Insecure and Master of None are regularly delving deep into the minefield of app-era dating, it’s increasingly hard to find a take on modern romance that feels fresh. So I’ve got to give props to James C. Strouse’s new Netflix film The Incredible Jessica James, which comes up with a social-media conceit that I’ve never encountered before. I call it: Instagram Strangers on a Train.
Jessica Williams stars as Jessica James, an aspiring playwright in New York who has just gone through a painful breakup with her ex (Lakeith Stanfield). She gets set up on a date with a friend of a friend, Boone (Chris O’Dowd), who has recently gone through a divorce, from a food blogger named Mandy Moore (not that Mandy Moore). Jess and Boone both want to move on and escape from the self-destructive spiral of constantly refreshing their exes’ Instagram feeds, but they can’t bear the thought of cutting the cord for good. So they come up with a plan: They will follow each other’s exes and keep the other person updated on anything essential that goes on. It’s basically the social-media stalking equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, about two strangers who agree to “exchange” murders in attempt to commit the perfect crime.
What follows is a beautiful (and beautifully petty) solution to one of digital romance’s most pervasive hazards. If you go cold turkey on your ex’s social media too early, without having a designated point person, you’re destined to become that annoying person who goes fishing for gossip every time you run into a mutual acquaintance. And if you keep following your ex while trying to remain inconspicuous, there’s still always the risk of auto-playing their story, or worse, inadvertently liking a vacation snap from 2012 when you’re doing a particularly deep creep. But by outsourcing your stalking to someone who isn’t emotionally invested, you can still keep tabs on your ex while (a) seeming like you’ve moved on, (b) avoiding the risk of errant double-taps (because if a stranger randomly likes your ex’s old photo, so what?), and (c) removing unnecessary daily misery from your life.
In this case, it also provides a good way for Boone and Jessica to redirect their obsessive energies — always at their most potent after a breakup — into something productive. After all, following one’s ex on Instagram is largely a crutch, a way to feel tethered to the person you’ve lost, but rarely does it elicit anything productive. “I was just calling to let you know that Damon finally started watching the Sopranos and he thinks it’s pretty good,” Boone tells Jessica at one point.
So next time you go through a breakup, meet a stranger in a similar bind (preferably someone as cute as Jessica Williams or Chris O’Dowd) and do a switcheroo. Who knows — it might just help you find someone new to stalk (lovingly!) instead.