SFFILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! The titular character of Emily the Criminal is one of 42.9 million of us drowning in student debt. And having left school before graduation, she’s also left with limited career choices. We first meet Emily (Aubrey Plaza) during a grueling grilling for a menial administrative job in which her past criminal history is unearthed. But unfortunately, the hiring-committee dance and thinly-veiled judgment she faces have pushed her to her breaking point, causing her to walk out mid-interview.
An artist at heart, Emily is forced into slinging slop at a local food delivery service, which is barely carving away at the interest on her loans. The job causes her to re-evaluate moving from Los Angeles back home to New Jersey to live with her stepfather. She’s also forced to connect with former classmates who are embedded in career-worthy jobs and traveling the globe.
A coworker offers Emily fast money, recruiting her for a scam involving the seemingly nice Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his cousin. Emily is to purchase items using fraudulent credit cards, then those items are sold on the black market. While dicey, the promise of a quick $200 cash proves too alluring, and she accepts. Like any tempting pyramid scheme, the cousins offer her a chance to make ten times that amount for a riskier endeavor. Emily tentatively accepts.
“Emily is to purchase items using fraudulent credit cards, then those items are sold on the black market.”
Emily the Criminal is writer-director John Patton Ford’s first feature, and he keeps his camera at eye level throughout, putting the audience in the passenger seat of Emily’s ride. The tension is palpable with hard cuts of closing doors, circling helicopters, and other chaotic crashes that mark the seedy Los Angeles streets. Throughout, Ford tempts viewers with Emily’s redemption, providing potential off-ramps from her current course. It further heightens the tension while adding sympathy for our lead, as these legitimate careers all seem to carry with them stipulations that would negatively impact her life in one way or another.
Emily is not a role we’d expect to see Plaza in, but she proves to be a perfect choice and is given ample opportunity to flex her dramatic muscle. Rossi channels a young John Turturro as a criminal with a heart. It is easy to see why Emily decides to allow him access underneath her hardened exterior. The two play well off each other.
But, note the finale of Emily the Criminal does not match the pulse-pounding scenes of her earlier assignments. However, it still manages to work toward a satisfying, logical conclusion while offering a solid critique of the gig economy many Americans face in which fortune is merely a credit card swipe away.
"…the tension is palpable"