As with all Bonnie and Clyde movies, from the classic (Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde”) to the searingly contemporary (Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim”), there’s no doubt where Joshua Caldwell’s “Infamous” will end. It even starts at the end, all the better to remind how these stories conclude: a swirl of blood-stained money, a pile of dead bodies, and at least one dedicated criminal wondering how the hell they’re going to get out of this pickle.
This time, however, the last gal standing is armed with something unexpected: a smartphone, trained on her face as she unpacks, in real time and to thousands of followers, why she still hopes this all might turn out okay. After all, Arielle (Bella Thorne) always “knew she was going to be famous,” and as her engagement numbers tick ever upward, it seems as if she’s gotten that wish. Too bad about all the dead bodies.
Caldwell’s “Infamous,” at turns nihilistic and uncomfortably believable, may be built on a thin premise — what if its star-crossed pair of criminal lovers was, as the kids say, doing it for the ‘gram? — but an appropriately nutso performance from its star and some sharp writing keep it from feeling as disposable as its worldview. Arielle’s value system is based on the pursuit of fame, an old story that finds new life by casting a star recognizable to many for her own social-media exploits rather than her long-running acting career, and one that Thorne attacks with gusto. Stuck in a nowhere town somewhere in Florida — referred to at one point as the “redneck Riviera” — Arielle spends her free time aimlessly scrolling through social media feeds and absorbing the belief that everyone is having a better time of it than she is.
She might be right: her mother’s concept of parenting is to direct Arielle to the “leftover KFC in the fridge,” her friends only care about bad parties and worse gossip, and the mysterious new boy in town (Jake Manley) is mostly interesting for his criminal record. For Arielle, however, it all boils down to her belief that her biggest problem is that she has no social media reach. It’s a shallow idea, and that’s the point, as Caldwell ably presents both Arielle’s own foibles with respect (she’s not in on the joke, but Caldwell doesn’t appear to be making fun of her), and then tears them into pieces.
After getting a brief taste of internet fame thanks to a vicious beatdown caught on camera (new followers: about 150) and the inevitable loss of her secret stash of waitressing tips stashed under her bed (has any movie ever shown off a hidden wad of money and then not whisked it away?), Arielle is hellbent on getting out of Dodge. A burgeoning relationship with Dean (Manley) — who is hiding not only some sensitive emotions but also real powers of reasonable thought under his frowning, bleach-blonde exterior — leads to an accidental death they (rightly) assume will be pinned on them, and soon enough, they’re motoring their way out of their humdrum lives.
It’s Arielle who comes up with the idea that they can rob their way to fame, both literally and figuratively. Whatever cash they scam from their marks (mostly marijuana dispensaries and cheapo convenience stores) can bankroll them, and the footage she shoots and shares from each crime will raise their social media stock. She wants to broadcast their crimes, convinced that if they become famous enough, the law simply won’t touch them. It’s a wild, not entirely untrue idea, and Arielle (and a less convinced Jake) do little to cover their tracks along the way.
As the duo blaze their way through the southern United States, the followers keep coming (bold pink type proclaims their exploding follower count, along with numerous comments that boil down to people really, really liking to watch actual crime unfold live). Hammy lines fly fast, too, from Arielle’s straight-faced delivery of bangers such as “I ain’t no getaway driver, baby needs a gun” and Dean chalking up the ease in which they get guns to his basic belief that you “gotta love America.”
Caldwell leans on montages to zip through the film’s first half, though none of them are as queasy and effective as the split screens he uses to show off an enraptured Arielle as she watches their own exploits play out again on video. The walls close in soon enough, hastened along by Arielle’s itchy trigger finger and a handful of bloody sequences that will likely play far differently now than they might have even six months ago, and the duo are soon just running scared. “Infamous” doesn’t skirt Arielle’s comeuppance, though that inevitable ending dilutes the power of the film’s frenetic first half. It’s not so uncomfortable that you can’t look away, but it’s close enough.
The introduction of Amber Riley as Elle, a self-professed fan of Arielle and Dean, does add some necessary calm. But while Riley turns in the film’s sole grounded performance, Caldwell’s script is eager to foist all kinds of buzzwords on her brief appearance. Elle is not only the sole person moving through the film at a normal pace; she’s also a social media addict and a bored telemarketer afraid of losing her job to overseas companies and not being able to pay her massive student loans because of it. She’s a Mad Libs of what it means to be “young” and “American” and “worried,” a catch-all meant to act as a window into why people might be so enthralled with Arielle and Dean (they’re fighting back!).
But we already know why people are enthralled by Arielle and Dean, and force-feeding deeper meanings into a purposely shallow offering does nothing to bolster its cred. Leaning into the nihilism at the film’s core (and at the heart of Arielle) does far more to interrogate the corroded culture that bred both this story and a generation obsessed with what social media tells them (and how it makes them feel). Doing it for the ‘gram means doing it for, well, nothing — nothing tangible, nothing that lasts, and “Infamous” fares far better when it embraces that kind of bleakness.
Vertical Entertainment will release “Infamous” on VOD, in virtual cinemas, and at select drive-ins on Friday, June 12.