Written by: John Patton Ford
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon
Crime has such an allure to individuals for various reasons stemming from our natural inclinations to disobey authority but also, it promises to provide when typical legal means just don’t cut it. The more desperate someone is, the more likely they are to resort to doing illicit activities. Emily the Criminal thrives because of its emphasis on displaying this particular struggle and why someone would resort to doing these activities even with the threats that exist if they get caught.
Drowning in student loan debt and with no real career prospects, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) gets presented with the opportunity to do some slightly illicit work for some cash. After proving to be successful at it, she sees this as an opportunity to get out of her financial quandary even if this has her continuing to dig herself into a bigger hole with some dangerous consequences on the horizon.
Elements of Emily the Criminal have been seen before. Someone who is down on their luck has to resort to crime. The level of crime may vary but this feature comes in differently because it presents a situation that feels safe enough to do without the potential downsides of getting involved with something like drugs or more serious nefarious work. The crime she commits is credit card fraud. She goes into a store with a falsified credit card, purchases an item, and then sells it to a buyer for real cash. That becomes the enterprise but at the start, it’s just doing the first two steps for $200. The narrative does a good job explaining that no one is getting hurt, other than a stranger’s credit score but it’s so simple. You can see why it would be so alluring for Emily seeing as her future in other aspects of life are not bright. She’s stuck in a dead-end job and no other prospects are serving her well in Los Angeles.
The relatability ultimately becomes this film’s strength with Emily being a tremendous surrogate for many young professionals and no scene makes that more crystal clear than a particular interview scene. It demonstrates an insane standard that is put on young professionals that is beyond ridiculous and Emily’s response to it all is something everyone wishes they could say in that circumstance. Nothing around her is providing for her in a basic way, so resorting to some harmless crime cannot be the worst thing in the world, right?
As with any crime drama, there is plenty of tension and this film surely navigates it so well. The nervousness of Emily in her first endeavor allows for a nail-biting experience and it makes you question how you behave when in front of a cashier. The crime is so petty in nature that it takes me back from other indiscretions in life where I may have lied or fibbed and found myself at the cusp of being found out. This feeling captures that small infraction feeling very well, but then it has the moments where she stands up for herself and refuses to be victimized by the circumstances brought against her. In a way, it subverts our expectations of what will transpire in these scenes and adds to what makes this such a refreshing tale.
So much of the success of this feature comes from Aubrey Plaza as a performer and the jumps she makes here shows her continual development. It feels like it’s been ages since we saw her break out as April in Parks and Recreation. From playing an awkward young woman to someone so confident and willing to be vicious when necessary, she does a tremendous job within the confines of this role. Not only in how she plays the character but also this being the first time he’s playing a Latina one as well. A special little moment I enjoyed because these roles typically do not exist for individuals like Plaza who can pass as playing caucasian. Her Spanish sounded very much like mine as a first-generation American born to Latine parents. Just a little moment but also something that added richness to the character and even more context to her struggle.
Filled with contentious moments that allow for character growth and conviction, Emily the Criminal has so much for one to enjoy. It shows Aubrey Plaza displaying what she can accomplish in this next phase of her career and it’s certainly very exciting. With this and Black Bear under her belt, we’re going to be treated to some incredible performances by her and this will be one of many.