Through steely eyes and a muted look of desperation, Aubrey Plaza illustrates a person many of us could theoretically become if two or three things in our lives fall apart. That person is someone desperate enough to make fast cash through illegal means in order to pay off crippling student loan debt.
Plaza plays the titular character in John Patton Ford’s directorial debut, and she’s been a criminal long before we meet her. We just catch her at a time she’s ready to embrace it. Her past indiscretions nefariously reveal themselves during an interview for a medical administration job. Emily has no desire to answer for her DUI and aggravated assault charge. She has her reasons and doesn’t appreciate being put on metaphorical trial. She storms out in frustration.
The mic-drop moment doesn’t change the fact that Emily needs money. She’s saddled with $70,000 in student loan debt from art school, and her current catering gig can’t even keep up with the interest payments. She lives in LA where she passively watches her best friend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) climb the corporate ladder as an advertising agent while she mulls over going back to New Jersey to live with her stepfather.
That’s when Emily is tipped off about a chance to make $200; quite easily I might add. She texts a number she’s been given, which leads to her meeting Youcef (Theo Rossi), who supplies her with a credit card and stolen credentials. All she has to do is walk into a Best Buy and purchase a TV. She’s successful and pockets the Benjamins. How would she like to make $2,000? She would, and thus a partnership with Youcef is born.
Emily is desperate, but not helpless. It’s outside of the confines of her thankless job that she exhibits a deft sense of judgment, using her street-smarts and cagey attitude to spot trouble quickly and act accordingly. Youcef recognizes her prowess and is happy to groom her in the world of credit card fraud and dummy shopping. During this time, writer/director Ford tells us just enough to feel acquainted with Emily, but never understand the full-length of what appears to be her quietly dangerous life. Like Plaza herself, Emily remains within close proximity but ostensibly within arm’s reach of being fully penetrable. You get the feeling both women like it like that.
There are many things intriguing about Ford’s Emily the Criminal: its neurotic vibe, noir atmosphere, uneasy score, and its methodical (but not slow) narrative progression. To the latter point, it’s worth noting that even as Emily gets sucked into this underbelly of society, she still tries to carve a spot for herself in the world of respectable, (allegedly) gainful employment. It’s the insulting offer of an unpaid design internship orchestrated by her friend that puts the kibosh on that entirely. In one of the film’s best scenes, Emily throws the offer back in the face of a smarmy Gina Gershon, reminding her that the only people who can afford to take an unpaid internship are living at home rent-free.
Ford’s film is economical insofar that it doesn’t relish in wasted time nor dialog. At a taut 95 minutes, perhaps not every element of Youcef’s business is explained, just as Emily’s background is left fuzzy. But it doesn’t matter. I’m growing ever-so tired of movies that must explain every minute detail for the sake of pleasing the unpleasable crowd of Reddit users and CinemaSins loyalists. Besides, what Ford doesn’t explain feels purposeful. As such, it keeps the film grounded on its titular character and her desperate situation.
If anything, Ford could’ve broadened the film. Emily’s plight is not unique to this fictitious movie character. When you have the better half of two generations saddled with crippling student loan debt they were told to take on, no questions asked, because if not, they’d be working some low-level joe-job in search of a path forward, this is the result you’re going to get.
It was the brilliant writer James Baldwin who once said, “the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” Emily the Criminal is equal parts a dramatization of that line and a warning.
NOTE: Emily the Criminal is now available to rent on multiple platforms.
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossie, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Gina Gershon. Directed by: John Patton Ford.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!