‘Infamous’ Puts a Social Media Spin on a Familiar Tale of Outlaw Lovers
Bella Thorne is many things to her legions of fans. Disney Channel star, recording artist, author, social media sensation, Pornhub director — she’s done it all. Now she takes aim at the classic lovers on-the-run genre with “Infamous,” an exercise in neon-lighting that becomes as shallow as the themes it claims to explore. Add this one to the ranks of nihilistic millennial despair, where the outcasts of rural America decide to become both deadly outlaws and social media icons. With better humor and boldness it might have actually said something.
Thorne plays Arielle, named by her deadbeat mother after “The Little Mermaid,” walking around tortured by boredom in a forgotten Florida town. Tattooed and good-looking Arielle just wants to be famous because it’s the coolest thing in the world. She also has a crush on a local mechanic and ex-con named Dean (Jake Manley). What Dean actually did no one knows, but Arielle and the other local girls are attracted to him because he seems edgy. One fateful night Arielle walks in on Dean as he fights with his alcoholic father, who meets his death after falling down some stairs during the scuffle. The pair run off and need money. Well, why not rob a liquor store? Not only does it go well, but Arielle then posts the robbery online and it instantly boosts her followers. She quickly catches on that if they keep committing robberies and sharing them with the world, she can finally achieve that fame she so desperately wants.
For most of its running time “Infamous” has the odd tone of unintentional self-parody. Writer/director Joshua Caldwell is obviously aiming at something with the energy of “Spring Breakers,” where glossy cinematography and music decorate a violent take on modern American kids going nuts. But Harmony Korine is an enfant terrible going after satire. “Infamous” doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The screenplay is a collection of social media and trashy pop culture clichés. Never does the dialogue ring with any real humor, just the kind of “movie talk” that reduces the characters to stereotypes. Arielle has zero motivations or dreams, or coherent thoughts for that matter. She is written to just stare at her phone and whine to Dean, “I want to be famouusss.” There’s no sense of the tragic sadness of such a personality, like Sissy Spacek in “Badlands” or Juliette Lewis in “Natural Born Killers.” Dean has little presence or even a sense of danger. If Caldwell wants this movie to function as a commentary on our social media obsession, the message is never quite effective or clear. The number of Arielle’s followers ticks off in giant colorful letters on screen, but there is not much reason to care. Do Arielle and Dean inspire copycats? It is never clear. As expected there are many references in the dialogue to “Bonnie & Clyde,” the ultimate outlaw lovers saga. But those two remain intriguing as personalities from a specific time and place. They were products of the Great Depression, while Arielle and Dean are products of boredom. The flaw in Caldwell’s approach is that he seems just as bored too. Even the robberies feel repetitive and mundane. Their grand strategy is equally stale: Knocking off marijuana shops because the cops won’t care anyway.
It would be unfair to claim Bella Thorne is a bad actor. Someone with her track record obviously has appeal. Yet she is never quite convincing in “Infamous” because she overplays the role to the point of farce. If it’s meant to be satire the character is never supposed to be aware of it. Thorne’s Arielle whines, stomps, screams (“you took my moneeyyy!”) with the impression you get from a bad high school performance. She sports bright wigs, basks in looking bored on a couch and posing with guns, but it feels too much like actual posing. In fact everyone in this film feels like they are consciously acting, except for Amber Riley of “Glee,” who plays a woman named Elle who Arielle and Dean kind of take hostage for one night, because they need a ride. Elle is the only character who is both believable and provides the comic surprise of supporting what the runaway lovers do and suggests they also share what they take with the poor. Unfortunately the movie never explores that idea further. Tension in this relationship only comes from Arielle wanting to be famous and maybe get to Hollywood, and Dean not realizing why that is so important.
If you are wondering if there is a grand final heist and an eventual squad of troopers or SWAT team, then you are correct. Arielle and Dean meet up with some shady (what else?) criminal who wants to rob a bank but not put it online. Why he wants to work with these two losers is beyond any reasonable thought. Blood will be spilt in CGI bursts, and Arielle will weep tears of despair while staring into her little phone screen. Thorne’s own Pornhub work as a director is a short film titled “Her & Him,” which is apparently an adult film reimagining of “Romeo & Juliet.” It is almost guaranteed the climax in that movie is better than here.
Followers of Bella Thorne may find guilty pleasure in watching their idol brandishing a few guns and sulking under a hot Florida sun. Yet “Infamous” offers little to everyone else except Caldwell’s eye for some slick shots. Like the social media it pretends to be commenting on there is no shame to just keep swiping.
“Infamous” premieres June 12 on VOD.