This review was part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: Emily (Aubrey Plaza) just can’t catch a break. She’s a college dropout, reeling from a felony aggravated assault conviction that follows her to every job interview, tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt weighing her down like a ball and chain. It’s calcified her to the world, approaching each new interview just waiting for the next reason she’ll be rejected. All she’s got to her name are her wits and a can of pepper spray.
But a rare opportunity appears when a coworker at her degrading catering gig turns her onto a way to make some extra money: show up at a warehouse at the proper hour, perform a small-scale credit card scam with boosted flatscreens, and you earn $200 in an hour. You won’t be in any danger, and you won’t have to hurt anybody, explains her handler Youcef (Theo Rossi), “But it is against the law.”
Emily does it, and wouldn’t you know it, she takes to it. She likes it. And what’s more, she’s good at it. It might just be her way out of debt — if she can stay alive.
Millennials Are Killing the Mob Industry: Anyone who came of age around the 2008 financial crash understands all too well the plight of the millennial. Born into a world that told them they could have anything they wanted, as long as they went to college and “worked hard,” only to enter the world just as America’s housing market collapsed and left them without the opportunity for gainful employment.
Suddenly, those tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt they were assured would be offset by a prosperous career went up in smoke, ripped from them by predatory lenders. Add to that the one-two punch of the gig economy and the rise of unpaid internships, and it’s a wonder that more folks didn’t put down their avocado toast and pick up a gun.
That’s the idea at the core of John Patton Ford’s wily, low-budget crime thriller Emily the Criminal, an overcast LA potboiler more thrilling for its central performance than it is the broader nuances of its story. Ford wrote the script in response to his own experiences reeling from student debt — the dehumanizing sinkhole of loan interest, the jaundiced looks from interviewers who either want to dismiss you on a technicality (as a supercilious John Billingsley does in the opening scene) or pay you in “exposure” (see: Gina Gershon‘s defensive girlboss later on). No wonder a life of crime feels more appealing by comparison: at least people are right when they look at you like a criminal.
Ford’s film takes place in an LA drained of color, Jeff Bierman’s cinematography drenching the streets in washed-out whites and ice-cold blues to match the lost-paradise feel of the place. Nathan Halpern’s score is suitably effective as well, punctuating Emily’s closer brushes with danger with pulsating synths that tumble ever further toward calamity.
The craft is there, especially on the limited budget and resources Ford had to work with (including filming during COVID). But admittedly, save for one tense stand-off with a grifter couple who try (and fail) to rip her off, Ford’s camera can’t muster the energy and urgency such a high-wire act requires.
Natural Born Killer: That’s where Plaza comes in, turning in the kind of calcified, committed turn we’ve come to expect from one of Hollywood’s most versatile stars. Her Emily is a tough, street-talking Jersey gal with the accent to boot (though it drifts in and out depending on the scene), as resourceful as she is hauntingly cynical.
We don’t get to learn a lot about her, which is frustrating, but that’s also the point: Emily’s learned the hard way that telling people too much about herself turns them away from her, so it’s best to just keep everyone at a distance. Conversely, that makes her burgeoning romance with Youcef one of the film’s rare threads of softness. Rossi and Plaza have beautiful chemistry, the former’s steely-eyed menace giving way to a protective warmth that starts to file down Emily’s callouses.
Like Emily, Youcef is someone who wants to chase the American Dream, a Lebanese immigrant who has turned to crime to do so. His motives are more altruistic than you’d think — striving to provide for his sweet, supportive mother (Sheila Korsi) — even if his methods are cruel. But as the film goes on, we learn he’s basically the teddy bear of the operation, especially as a more unscrupulous older brother (Jonathan ) makes his presence known. There’s a vein of tragedy there that sweetens their scenes together.
Given Plaza’s previous stabs at unscrupulous, “difficult” characters — Ingrid Goes West, Black Bear — it’s hard not to feel like Emily belongs to an earlier stage in Plaza’s career, one where she had more to prove. It’s a killer showcase for her, to be sure, all hunched shoulders and cocky defiance. But it’s also more straightforward than some of her more multi-layered turns, Emily’s opaqueness both making her fascinating and inscrutable in the same breath.
The Verdict: There’s a lot to sink your teeth into with Emily the Criminal, between its strong Plaza turn and a pitch-black moral core that refreshingly commits to the bit. But outside of those devilish comforts, a lot of Ford’s debut is frustratingly thin, more concerned with giving Plaza plenty of opportunities to bore through the screen with her eyes in extreme close-up than in really breaking down her psychology and the perverse romance at its center.
She’s still astonishing in the role; how could she not be? And as an avatar for our collective frustrations at America’s broken economic promises, it certainly rings true. It’d just be nice if the film had a bit more to say on the subject than “screw it, let’s just make our own rules.”
Where to Watch: Following its Sundance premiere, Emily the Criminal is in theaters beginning Friday, August 12th.