In writer/director John Patton Ford’s intense character study, “Emily the Criminal“, Aubrey Plaza finds the role and performance of her career.
In this intense character study, Ford crafted a tale that speaks to the America of 2022; a land of never-ending debt where a majority of the population struggles to survive in an unstable ecomnomy where wages go down while the cost of living increases year by year.
Emily (Plaza) has a problem that many in this country face, trying to enter an unforgiving job world with a felony conviction on one’s record. Due to a past conviction, she is stuck in low paying jobs.
This is a real problem that speaks to our broken and racist penal system. America has long had a problem with “rehabilitation”. The law wants to punish offenders, but when their sentence has finished, their “debt to society” should be considered paid. With background checks, so many are not afforded the chance to prove they either made a mistake or have been rehabilitated. For many, the complete shutout of the job world causes them to reoffend, and the cycle continues.
Emily’s best friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is employed by a seemingly high-end ad agency. Emily wants a piece of that world, as she watched her friend fly off to other countries for work and never need to worry about money. To be in that kind of world would be great for Emily.
Liz gets her friend an interview with her boss (Gina Gershon, getting great mileage out of only one scene).
Alas, Gershon’s character will only offer an unpaid intern position. Rightfully offended and angry, the two argue and Emily leaves.
The scene represents another issue in America’s backwards workforce, unpaid internships without assurance of employment. This is how big companies stay profitable. They pay low wages and/or hire a lot of interns to work their asses off for free. Capitalism at its most offensive. This moment is where the film is at its most effective.
Hitting a financial brick wall and seemingly shut out of the Los Angeles job market, Emily falls in with a group of “dummy shoppers”. These are criminals who clone credit cards, buy items with someone else’s credit, and resell it at a higher price.
The card scam is run by Youcef (Theo Rossi), who is stoic in his demeanor and may very well be a bit dangerous. It is his off-putting presence (along with the illegal slant to the “job”) that causes Emily to be hesitant. Alas, desperation overwhelms her, and she tries it once. After making $200 for one hour’s work, her interest is piqued, especially when she is offered another gig, this one paying off two grand. She is all in.
While the overall plot and many of its situations may be familiar, Ford directs his film with a sharp attention to character and moment.
Jeff Bierman’s camera keeps tight watch on Emily, as she is shown a lot in close-up. Aubrey Plaza’s eyes show a soul that is good and a woman who desires to be honest, but is much too desperate. Bierman’s tight framing enhances Emily’s plight and allows the strength of Plaza’s performance to come through with a realistic power.
Plaza is an actress who is consistently surprises with her performances. Over the past few years, she has branched out, seeking more challenging roles with deeper character work (a great example being her work in 2020’s “Black Bear”). It is a delight to see this marvelous actress reveal new layers to her abilities.
Theo Rossi has long been an actor who gives great performances in supporting roles. His character was one of the highlights on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and he shines in many independent films of late.
Rossi matches Plaza’s intensity beat for humanistic beat. Youcef is in a seemingly good spot, as his business is thriving. Although it is highly illegal, he confesses to Emily that he wants to get out of it and own a redesigned apartment complex where his mother can live safely and in comfort. Youcef is a good person doing a bad thing. The same can be said for Emily. Rossi sells his character’s inherent sweetness and cautious determination with skill and honesty.
Emily and Youcef fall into an uneasy relationship that seems unnecessary until further plot points bring more weight to their coupling.
Youcef’s boss and older brother Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori) doesn’t care for Emily nor for her closeness to his younger sibling. This is not the first rule she breaks. As with any crime film, things get heated and, eventually, very dangerous.
Nathan Halpern’s moody score enhances the tension throughout. The music gives weight to the moments when Emily and Youcef’s lives beging to spin out of control while the electronic ambience infuses a pulsating rigidity to Emily’s danger.
Where the final act takes its lead character has upset quite a few fellow critics. Without revealing anything, I will state that Emily is out to make a life for herself beyond her past. When the last 20 or so minutes take shape, the audience must remind itself of the film’s title.
“Emily the Criminal” asks the question, “In this broken legal system and unforgiving modern economy, is Emily the actual criminal?” Perhaps she knows that she will never be allowed the opportunity for change.
As Plaza show us through her perfectly tuned performance, Emily wants to move past her one-time mistake and carve out a proper life in honest society. The world won’t let her.
That her character is not alone is the true crime.
Emily the Criminal
Written and Directed by Jonathan Patton Ford
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon
R, 93 Minutes, Roadside Attractions/Vertical Entertainment/Low Spark Films