Sundance Review: “Emily the Criminal”

Many millennials are in financial crisis. Overwhelming student loans, low-paying jobs and unpaid internships that don’t allow you to progress anywhere—it’s a crutch that affects the lifestyles of many, including Emily (Aubrey Plaza). At the start of director John Patton Ford’s thriller “Emily the Criminal,” we see Emily on a job interview, where a bit of her past comes to light. She had to drop out of art school because of an assault felony. She doesn’t have the degree or professional experience required to get a “real job” that would allow her to pay off her $60,000 in student loans and get to really live—move in to her own place, travel—and her criminal record, even though it’s just that one offense, isn’t helping. In the meantime, Emily does deliveries for a catering company, and one afternoon, in exchange for taking over his shift, her coworker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) gives her the number of a person she can call for a job where she can make $200 in one hour.

It’s that phone call that sets off a chain of events that are always increasing in risk—and reward. Emily engages in credit card fraud under the tutelage of Youcef (Theo Rossi), and the early scenes in which Emily goes dummy shopping—buying pricey items with stolen credit card numbers to later turn them over—are wracked with tension. Director Ford keeps up a steady pace, but the end of the film, in which the conflict between Youcef and his family/coworkers becomes the center of the action, feels less interesting. “Emily the Criminal” also fails to push the struggle at the heart of it, the motivation for Emily becoming Emily the Criminal in the first place. Even though Emily lives in a crummy LA apartment with multiple roommates, even though she works a crappy and sometimes demeaning job, and can’t seem to progress forward when she’s so saddled with debt, her situation never comes off as desperate. There are really two scenes (three, including the opening) that feel like that illustrate this problem not just as it applies to Emily specifically, but others of her generation. When she argues with her boss at the catering company because he decides in retribution to take away her shifts at the last minute, he says that that’s his right, since she’s an independent contractor. Emily fires back that just because she’s an independent contractor, “doesn’t mean we don’t have rights.” Her quest for more stable employment is blocked again later when her best friend (played by Megalyn Echikunwoke) gets her an interview with her boss (Gina Gershon) at a plush design firm—but the position, Emily’s dream job of being an artist, is an unpaid internship with full time hours. “Emily the Criminal” doesn’t exactly convey the universality of this scenario, but I also appreciate Ford’s commitment to keeping this movie lean, mean, and focused on Emily, and I’m sure a lot of people will relate with her job search ordeal regardless. And Ford does set up these scenes in a way that makes it clear why Emily keeps returning to the illegal but immeasurably more profitably credit scheme.

Aubrey Plaza in “Emily the Criminal”

“Emily the Criminal” is standard thriller fare in many regards—technically, narratively—but it’s entertaining throughout thanks to the capable lead performance of Plaza. At the beginning, she plays Emily the way many of us would likely respond to her situation, as someone deeply uncertain and even frightened of what she is getting herself into. She’s fierce from the get-go, but by the end, she exudes confidence. As someone who spends the bulk of the movie saying she isn’t really sure what she wants (except for at one point when she tells Youcef that she desires freedom), she ultimately makes a choice that makes it pretty clear that she does. That doesn’t mean that the conclusion isn’t without its question marks, because for anything that Emily gains, there are things she loses, and Plaza’s performance doesn’t convey whether or not Emily is entirely happy with her new situation. And that sacrifice—renouncing relationships in the pursuit of economic stability, escaping the corporate grind to be your own boss—circles back to that very real financial struggle at the heart of the film that elevate it slightly above being another by-the-numbers thriller.

Runtime: 93 minutes. Find more information about the Sundance Film Festival here.

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