Emily the Criminal

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) has $70K in student debt and a couple of youthful infractions which trip her up during white collar job interviews.  When she agrees to take a shift for Javier (Bernardo Badillo, "Sully") at the food delivery business they work at, he returns the favor by slipping her a contact for a quick $200/hr.  That turns out to be a gig as a dummy shopper for a credit card fraud operation where Emily finds an attraction for Youcef (Theo Rossi, Netflix's 'True Story') and a predilection for the work as “Emily the Criminal.”

Laura's Review: B

Writer/director John Patton Ford's feature debut was based on his own personal experience struggling with student loan debt, but fortunately his leap of faith was towards filmmaking rather than fraud.  Eliciting a career best performance from Plaza, who in recent years has finally begun to shake off her snarky ‘Parks and Rec’ persona and show her range, Ford’s film works because it is grounded in the American reality that hard work alone rarely leads to one’s dream.

After partying hard with her friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke, "Late Night"), who appears to have the graphics design marketing job she aspires to, a hung over Emily shows up at the address Javier gave her.  A glowering Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori, "Norman") demands her reference and ID before sending her in to the training session given by the less threatening Youcef, who frankly states that what they will be doing is not legal, but will be safe if they follow his instructions.  Emily gets up to leave, but Youself stops her, and after she successfully buys a big screen television, a tense scene only marred by a bit of manufactured, overly telegraphed last minute suspense, he asks her if she’d like to make $2K.  Emily agrees, but doesn’t’ come out unscathed, prompting Youcef to show concern which leads to a form of mentorship.  (Oddly, her buddy Javier seems to turn on her rather quickly when she leaves work early for this gig, one of the film’s few off notes.)

Plaza plays Emily like a rebel with nerves of steel in desperate straits.  Ford sets this up early, Emily bristling when an interviewer catches her up on her record, only for her to react as if he’s the one being dishonest, a scene which will be repeated under different circumstances later to weightier effect.  She views the world through slit, suspicious eyes, gaining confidence as her boldness pays off.  Ford’s casting is also spot on with Theo Rossi, whose relatively gentle, caring demeanor allows Plaza’s character to relax into the world he’s offering her.  He’s on his way to purchasing a small L.A. apartment block, currently being renovated.  She desires freedom and travel.  He encourages her.

There is one incredibly tense scene where Emily slips up, Youcef’s warning about doing a deal close to home coming back to bite her.  But he’s also armed her with a taser and she manages to flip the script.  They’ll both briefly drift into Liz’s world, Emily even given the long dangled interview with Liz’s boss Alice (Gina Gershon) which only exposes the empty promise of Emily’s former goal.  Then, just when things are getting so cozy Youcef takes Emily to visit his mom (Sheila Korsi, "The Tax Collector"), in steps Khalil with proof of Emily’s recklessness.

Ford never tips his hand as to where he’s going, making for a character study that’s a true edge-of-your-seat experience.  Director of photography Jeff Bierman shoots the whole film from Plaza’s POV, using close-ups during moments of intensity.  Production designer Liz Toonkel ("Marcel the Shell with Shoes On") keeps things earthbound, Youcef’s small apartment building something both achievable yet impressive to Emily, whose shared, cramped living space is appropriate for her financial circumstances.  The fraud operation is run out of something that looks like shabby, abandoned retail space.

“Emily the Criminal” is an unexpectedly gritty American crime thriller from a promising new American filmmaker.

Robin's Review: B

Bad luck, school debt and a criminal record keep Emily (Aubrey Plaza) from having a normal existence. Desperate to get out of that crushing debt and start a new life, she gets involved with a team of credit card scammers and soon finds out she actually has a knack for the job in “Emily the Criminal.”

I had little knowledge and no expectations going in to watch “Emily the Criminal” and I am glad to say it is a pleasant surprise. Writer-director John Patton Ford tells Emily’s story of survival as the film becomes a two-hander when she meets Youcef (Theo Rossi) who becomes her mentor, and more, in the world of credit card scammers.

Emily soon proves that she has a knack for underworld scams and does well at it. But, she also proves that she is a tough cookie, too, and will stand up for herself when needed. For me, Aubrey Plaza is an acquired taste, but she and Theo Rossi are a dynamic duo of chemistry as their lives, in crime and out, intertwine. I really wanted them to be successful, even if it is a life of crime.

Roadside Attractions releases "Emily the Criminal" in theaters on 8/12/22.