“As long as I can remember, I knew I was going to be famous.”
So says Arielle, a teen with a dead-end job in a dead-end town in Florida. She has a bad gig, worse prospects and—more horrible yet—her Instagram account is stuck at around 50 followers. No matter how pouty she makes her lips, no matter how provocatively she poses, no one seems to care. She’s nothing. A nobody. How can she become famous like that?
Then she gets a glimpse.
One night at a party, she and another person get into a fight: Not a shout-across-the-room-and-flash-the-finger sort of fight, but a punch-to-the-face-kick-to-the-gut sort of fight. Next morning, she wakes up with four times the followers she had before.
Nothing gets people clicking and following like a little outrageous behavior.
Not long after, she starts dating Dean Taylor, a grease monkey with a handgun and a criminal record. She wants to run off with him—shake the dust from their heels of this nowhere town. She’s been saving her tips from the diner and dreams of going to Hollywood with him. And she tells him so.
“I’m not sure my [parole officer] would approve of that,” he says.
No worries, she tells him. The universe has a way of working everything out.
Boy, the universe sure has a funny plan in store.
One night, Arielle comes home and finds her tip money stolen. Knowing her mom’s good-for-nothing boyfriend took it, she storms out of the house for good and heads to Dean’s, where he’s living with his no-good dad. She walks in and finds Dean’s dad punching Dean in the gut. She leaps on Dad. Dad throws her against the wall. Dean slugs Dad and sends him bouncing down the stairs … with a broken neck.
Dad’s dead. Dean already has a criminal record. They have no money, but they do have a car. And so they vanish into the night.
But not for long.
See, that very night, the two of them hit a convenience store, robbing the place blind. Arielle records the robbery, then posts the footage under a new Insta account. In one night, she racks up 3,000 followers—which is way more important to her than the money they stole.
And so she begins to dream—dream not of being discovered in a diner like a 1950s movie star, or of being heard in a nightclub and signed to a big record deal. No, she dreams of likes, of followers, of finding fame online. And she knows how to do it.
“A couple of teenagers robbing their way across America,” she tells Dean. “That’s worth following.”
Obviously when we look at our protagonists, we’re not looking at folks with the best of character. But you could take the movie itself as a commentary on 21st-century society’s obsession with fame and social media, and how the two intersect. Plugged In has covered plenty of studies on how powerful and enticing that connection is: A 2013 poll (reported by USA Today) found that kids and teens who want to be famous use more social media. Airelle’s own desire for fame simply takes those impulses and pushes them past any normal limit and, as such, her story could be seen as biting social commentary.
But the film bites in plenty of other ways, too.
Arielle is, in her own way, quite spiritual: She doesn’t profess belief in any traditional god, but rather in “fate” and “cosmic coincidences.”
“If you put out what you want, the universe will give it to you,” she tells Dean. Later, she insists that “the universe has a plan for you, for me, for everybody.” And when she and Dean meet somebody on their travels who wants to tag along with them, she invokes the name of Christ. She tells the would-be follower that there’s “some big change that Jesus wants you to make,” but that joining them on their crime spree isn’t it.
Arielle wears a T-shirt that reads “Y’all Need Jesus” into a convenience store.
Arielle knows as well as anyone that sex sells—especially on the internet. She dresses provocatively (most often in short-shorts and tops that bare both cleavage and midriff) and poses sensually for her handful of followers, desperately hoping to draw more. She’s also all about seducing other, in-the-flesh young men. And when Dean shows up in town, he rises to the top of her list. Arielle comes on to him incredibly strong, earning a whole bunch of less-than-wholesome descriptors from the other girls in town.
She has sex with Dean shortly after they meet in the back seat of his car. Then, after their first robbery, Arielle is so fired up by being bad that she straddles Dean while he’s driving. (Dean finds a way to park either during the act.) Nothing critical is shown in either of those interludes, but audiences will see a lot of skin, movement, and various other visual clues as to what’s happening. They kiss and hug and make out elsewhere, too—sometimes split seconds after it looked like they were about to punch each other silly.
Arielle storms in on her mother and her boyfriend as they have sex and tries to rip the covers off both of them. (Despite Arielle’s efforts, we only see them both from the shoulders up.) That boyfriend seems to make a crude pass at Arielle, too. Trying to make their way to a new state, Arielle and Dean wait by the side of the road for a kind passer-by (with Dean hidden out of sight). When such a motorist does pull over, Arielle asks if the lady has a husband or a boyfriend at home. “Or a girlfriend,” Arielle asks with a syrupy smile. “I don’t want to assume anything.”
We learn that both Arielle and Dean were raised without a father around, and that Arielle was a “mistake.” We see lots of Instagram photos featuring bikini-clad women and shirtless guys. We hear a crass reference to oral sex.
Arielle’s internet fame is built, to some extent, on violence. It begins with her brawl with a young woman rival (that includes some pretty vicious shots to the face) and accelerates from there. When she gets shot in the shoulder with a shotgun and, after Dean painfully picks the buckshot out of the wound, she poses for her fans—bandage, bloody shoulder, pouty lips and all.
It’s also the catalyst for their crime spree. As mentioned, they rob their first store after accidentally killing Dean’s father (whose lifeless body we see at the bottom of the stairs).
But it actually takes a while for Arielle and Dean’s escapades to progress to murder. Most of their robberies are just that—albeit interspersed with violent threats and the brandishing of guns. It’s only when their internet fame catches up with them that things take a really violent turn. Stopped by a police officer making a routine traffic stop, Arielle (who shows a certain infatuation with violence) shoots the policeman twice, killing him. We see him lying in the street in a pool of blood.
It’s not the last fatality. Arielle and Dean shoot at officers pursuing them in SUVs—using massive automatic guns. (We later hear during a television news report that the shootout was “fatal.”) Arielle shoots an innocent person walking into a convenience store. Several people die during a gunfight. One person is shot point-blank in the head, and we see the blood fly. Obviously, lots and lots of people are threatened.
Arielle dream/imagines shooting someone in the forehead: The man doesn’t die, and the bullet hole doesn’t bleed. Instead he raises his phone to record Arielle: Arielle looks around and finds that she’s surrounded by people documenting her every move, too (much to her pleasure).
People get punched viciously to the face (sometimes as a way to encourage them to open safes and whatnot). Arielle is thrown against a wall twice in the same night by different people—hitting her head both times. Dean’s father punches Dean mercilessly. Arielle, her mom and her mom’s boyfriend get into quite a pushy scuffle. We hear quite a bit about Florida’s gun laws—especially the ease with which one can buy a gun without a background check.
At least 230 f-words (several with the word “mother”) and another fortysomething s-words, plus two uses of the c-word. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ss,” “d–k” and “p—y.” God’s name is misused about 25 times, five with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused six times, at least once with the f-word. Obscene gestures are used frequently, too.
The secret to Arielle and Dean’s “success” (if you can call it that) is their decision early on to hit marijuana dispensaries. Because of federal banking guidelines, they have difficulty getting legitimate banking accounts or credit cards, and so these institutions tend to have more cash on hand. Plus, as Dean says, the authorities “don’t [care] about a weed store getting ripped off.” We see the interiors of several dispensaries, including telltale marijuana leaf symbols.
But the couple doesn’t just rob marijuana joints; they smoke them, too. We see them both roll and puff on them, and some parties feature seemingly dozens of revelers partaking (sometimes from bongs or other devices). Both main characters smoke cigarettes. They drink copious amounts of beer or other forms of alcohol, and Dean is appalled when they hijack someone’s house and learn that the woman doesn’t drink. “Vodka?” Dean persists. “Every chick has vodka” stashed somewhere, he says.
Arielle and Dean stay with an old jailhouse friend of Dean’s, who offers them beer, marijuana and cocaine. While Arielle rolls and smokes a joint, the friend (Kyle) snorts several lines of the latter.
While you could read the movie as a fable or cautionary tale on culture’s obsession with likes and followers and fame, you could also potentially see Arielle and Dean’s antics not just excused, but celebrated.
[Spoiler Warning] Eventually, Arielle rakes up 5 million followers, and they wind up meeting one fan who’s especially drawn to the life of excitement that Arielle and Dean lead. When Dean (who barely tolerates Arielle’s obsession with fame) asks why the woman follows her, the fan explains that she feels trapped in her own life; following theirs gives her a sense of satisfaction. “You stopped taking it and started giving it,” she said. The movie emphasizes that kind of attraction at the very end, too. As Arielle is dragged away by authorities, the way is lined with hundreds of her delirious fans.
It seems only fitting that Infamous, a story about the bizarre but compulsive quest to find web-based fame no matter the cost, stars former Disney starlet Bella Thorne. Now 22, Thorne is far more internet famous these days than she is for her work on either the big or small screen: She boasts 23 million Instagram followers and claims to earn $65,000 from Instagram posts. That’s not $65,000 on Instagram, mind you: That’s $65,000 per post.
“I was raised to think social media is everything,” she said in a recent documentary (as reported by the New York Daily News). And it has indeed powered her career most recently. But in that same documentary, she says she no longer believes that. “People get lost in the world of social media … what’s real, what’s fake,” she said.
Infamous certainly leverages Thorne’s internet fame to augment its themes. Those who stumble across this movie will almost surely be familiar with her Instagram footprint, and perhaps the meta-narratives in play here because of it.
But let’s face facts: Whatever meta-narratives are present here, and whatever point this movie wants to make, it’s done in the service of a vapid, crass, violent, profane story.
I don’t feel the need to go on here, to recap the movie’s sensual content or its bloodshed or its own preening obsession with bad behavior that earns all those good likes. It seems that its makers hoped that Infamous would live up to its name. More likely that the film, like its pre-murder heroine, Arielle, may simply fade into utter, and welcome, obscurity.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.