Sundance 2022 Premiere: “Emily the Criminal”

Aubrey Plaza and Theo Rossi do excellent work headlining writer/director John Patton Ford’s intense character study, “Emily the Criminal”.

Ford has crafted a tale very much of our times. A tale of never-ending debt and trying to survive the job world with a felony conviction on one’s record.

Emily (Plaza) is stuck in low paying jobs due to the tough time getting past her felony for assault.

This is a real problem that speaks to our penal system. America has long had a problem with “rehabilitation”. The law wants to rightfully punish offenders, but when their sentence has finished, their “debt to society” is considered paid. With background checks and felony records, 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 at 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.

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. Offended and angry, the two argue and Emily leaves.

The scene represents another issue in America’s backwards workforce, unpaid internships without the 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.

Completely stuck financially and seemingly shut out of the Los Angeles job market, Emily falls in with a group of “dummy shoppers”. These are people 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 and a bit thin, Ford directs his film with a sharp attention to character and moment.

Jeff Bierman’s camera keeps a tight watch of Emily, as she is shown a lot in close-up. Aubrey Plaza’s eyes show a soul that is good and wants to be honest but is much too desperate. Bierman’s tight framing not only enhances Emily’s plight but allows the strength in Plaza’s performance to come through powerfully.

Plaza is an actress who is consistently surprising audiences with her performances. Over the past few years, she has branched out into deeper character work (a great example being her stunning work in 2020’s “Black Bear”). This chapter of Plaza’s career finds her challenging herself and more often. 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. His character was one of the acting highlights on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and he shines in many independent films of late.

Rossi matches Plaza’s intensity here beat for beat. Youcef is an a seemingly good spot, as his business is thriving. Although it is 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 confit. Youcef is a good person doing a bad thing. The same can be said for Emily. Rossi brings home his character’s inherent sweetness and cautious determination with skill and a natural style.

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 times things get dicey, giving a pulsating rigidity to Emily’s danger.

Where the final act takes its lead character has upset 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 takes 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 is not allowed to change, to prove herself.

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. She is not alone. This is the true crime.


Emily the Criminal

Written and Directed by Jonathan Patton Ford

Starring Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon

Not Yet Rated, 93 Minutes, Low Spark Films