Bonnie and Clyde narratives are a dime a dozen. There are plenty of movies actually about the bankrobbing outlaw couple themselves — Bonnie & Clyde (1967), for example, and Netflix’s 2019 film The Highwaymen — and there are also plenty simply inspired by the idea of a madly-in-love guy and gal on the run from the law, from my personal favorites, 1970’s The Honeymoon Killers and 1973’s Badlands, up through last year’s Queen & Slim.
The latest in the genre is the new Bella Thorne movie Infamous, about a girl (Thorne) so desperate for online fame that she livestreams the string of gas station and weed dispensary robberies she commits with her boyfriend (Jake Manley) as they flee the cops across the American South. The more they steal, the higher her follower count goes; the more addicted she becomes to the likes and comments, the hungrier she gets for increased violence and bloodshed to satisfy her fans. It’s an action-packed, impressively shot, blood-soaked film, and while its reliance on social media in a bid for “relevancy” toes the line of being trite or surface-level, writer-director Joshua Caldwell’s script pulls the ending off deftly.
I find Bella Thorne to be a fascinating actress, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. The pansexual former Disney Channel star has taken a rather different path than her one-time costar Zendaya; whereas the latter gets more and more critical acclaim with each new role and has been working on increasingly prestigious projects, Bella has broadened her horizons into a number of different ventures, including writing a number of books, releasing a handful of Kesha-esque sing-talk rap songs (“Bitch I’m Bella Thorne“), posing with minimal makeup on Instagram for her 23 million followers, directing an award-winning Pornhub-original adult film, and acting in a number of, shall we say, less-prestigious projects, from Lifetime movies to horror films that get delayed for years and then released free on GooglePlay.
Still, even in those films, she is never anything less than compelling. I wouldn’t call her the most naturalistic actress; she is always capital-A Acting, always making visible the labor of performing, never really disappearing into a character. And yet she has a certain ability to seem emotionally naked on screen, always vulnerable, always completely unselfconscious, always game for whatever a role requires of her. In other words, there’s clearly artifice going on, but it’s an artifice that paradoxically reveals the artist’s talent and simultaneously makes her characters seem more real.
In addition, while her projects tend toward the lowbrow, she does have a penchant for primarily choosing roles that interrogate what the “self” means to her generation, to early-twentysomethings who were raised by the Internet, whose entire sense of being has fully merged with who they performatively say they are on social media.
In The DUFF (2015), she’s a reality-TV-obsessed mean girl who cyberbullies a less-popular girl. In Conrad & Michelle: If Words Could Kill (2018), she’s a girl who encourages her boyfriend over text message to kill himself, and then must live with the consequences when he does. In Keep Watching (2017), she’s a teen trying to survive the night during a home-invasion that broadcasts her family’s torture online. She even had the Drew Barrymore / surprise-death big-star role in the first episode of MTV’s Scream: The Series, and she of course was taunted by Ghostface via text instead of a phone call.
All of this is to say: Infamous is the perfect star vehicle for Bella Thorne, and she fittingly turns in the best performance of her career precisely because it’s impossible to separate the actress from her role. Her character Arielle is addicted to her phone and to the dopamine rush that comes with a successful post, addicted to carefully monitoring each Like and Follow. As the movie begins, Arielle lounges around her house, ignoring her promiscuous mother and her mom’s drunken lout of a boyfriend by scrolling endlessly through social media, jealously watching the likes climb on posts from people like Amanda Cerny, Lele Pons, and Logan Paul — all friends and collaborators of the real-life Bella Thorne. The fun of watching Arielle jealously monitor their feeds comes from knowing that Bella Thorne herself is right there with them as Gen-Z influencers go, racking up just as many Likes as they are. We’re asked to wonder if Bella Thorne herself is just as obsessed with her online fame, just as hooked on the validation she gets from her extremely popular Instagram account as her character is. And, indeed, the actress has been running an in-character page for the past few weeks, complicating things further.
Of course it’s only a matter of time before the masses in the film see in Arielle what they already see in Bella in real life.
Her performance is a snarling maelstrom of self-obsession and pithy sarcasm, of nihilism and greed and amorality. Some of her lines when she’s upset are delivered in an Exorcist-adjacent growl, such as when she’s horrified to find her mother’s boyfriend has stolen her squirreled-away waitressing tips; in a fit of fury, the best she can manage is to yell at them, “Fuuuuck…. you both.” The wanton abandon with which she throws herself into their newfound life of crime is reminiscent of the brilliant (and, yes, better) Spring Breakers — another film that works best as a star text, as a watch-these-Disney-girls-go-bad descent into madness — replete with neon wigs and DayGlo clothing.
She’s impossible to look away from on screen, always pulling out another wild line reading or particularly-entrancing narrowing of her eyes, seductively draping her body over her boyfriend’s lap or standing, cold, off to the side, phone in hand. It’s exactly the performance the film needs, and it wouldn’t work nearly as well — to the extent that it works at all — with any other actress.
Aside from Bella Thorne’s performance, Infamous does offer other pleasures, too. The action is quite well-filmed, including a harrowing single-take car chase shootout that manages to be both visually comprehensible and pulse-pounding. The climax, set during a bank robbery gone so very wrong, features a couple of balletic action shots that refuse to shy away from the emotional impact of the violence, even as the characters try to close themselves off from it.
Jake Manley, star of Netflix’s The Order, acquits himself particularly well as Arielle’s sleazy boyfriend Dean Taylor — “two first names,” she mocks him. He’s horrified by her thirst for online infamy, but he goes along with it because, hey, the money’s great and the sex is good too.
I’m not sure if Infamous really has much to say about online infamy, despite its “Viral Fame is a Dangerous Game” tagline. Amber Riley, as a fan of the murderous couple, is an underutilized late addition that attempts to explain why people would be so interested in Arielle and Dean’s exploits, and it’s not as insightful a choice as the film seems to thinks it is.
However, in the end, I don’t think Infamous is as interested in condemning the whole culture, the whole generation, as it may seem at first blush. This is just the way things are nowadays, and Bella Thorne’s performance makes the whole thing sing as a character piece, as a film about this one particular girl who’s so twisted by her drive to be famous that she’ll do absolutely anything, moreso than it works as a “socially-relevant” update of Bonnie and Clyde.
And that’s perfectly fine. Bitch, she’s Bella Thorne. And with Infamous, she has come into her own.
I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.
By Eric Langberg
Infamous is in virtual cinemas, select drive-ins (full list below poster) now, and is available for rental and purchase on VOD platforms.
Bella Thorne has created an official Instagram account based on her character in Infamous and has been interacting with fans ahead of the film’s release.
Full list of drive-in theaters INFAMOUS will be playing:
|Van Buren DI||Riverside, CA|
|Mission Tiki DI||Montclair, CA|
|Rubidoux DI||Riverside, CA|
|Delsea DI||Vineland, NJ|
|Milford DI||Milford, NH|
|Starlight DI||Atlanta, GA|
|Stardust DI||Chetek, WI|
|Magic City DI||Barberton, OH|
|Springmill DI||Mansfield, OH|
|Mayfield Rd DI||Chardon, OH|
|Midway DI||Ravenna, OH|
|Aut-O-Rama DI||North Ridgeville, OH|
|Star View DI||Norwalk, OH|
|Comet DI||Dunbar, PA|
|Skyview DI||Carmichaels, PA|
|Riverside DI||Vandergrift, PA|
|Hounds DI||Kings Mountain, NC|
|Badin Rd DI||Albemarle, NC|
|South Bay DI||San Diego, CA|
|Stardust DI||Watertown, TN|
|South DI||Columbus, OH|
|Eden DI||Eden, NC|
|Transit DI||Lockport, NY|
|Delevan DI||Delevan, NY|
|Sunset DI||Middleport, NY|
|Silver Lake DI||Perry, NY|
|Circle DI||Dickson, PA|
|Garden DI||Hunlock Creek, PA|
|Dixie DI||Dayton, OH|
|Tiffin DI||Tiffin, OH|
|Field of Dreams DI||Liberty Center, OH|
|Vintage DI||Avon, NY|
|Hwy 21 DI||Beaufort, SC|
|Tri Way DI||Plymouth, IN|
|Blue Grass DI||Blue Grass, IA|
|Tower DI||Poteau, OK|
|Silver DI||Johnstown, PA|
|Van Del DI||Middle Point, OH|
|Elm Rd DI||Warren, OH|
|Skyway DI||Warren, OH|
|Superior 71 DI||Spirit Lake, IA|