There’s a barbed anger to this dark, late-capitalist fable – an LA thriller that’s much better than its on-the-nose title suggests – of which Aubrey Plaza’s Emily is the perfect avatar. A wannabe graphic designer blocked from the job market by the millstone of a criminal record, she is long past taking any shit from anyone – which is a problem because that’s all anyone is offering.
Emily is a criminal (obvs), although not by design: she’s wildly behind the eight-ball when it comes to building a viable life for herself, with $70,000 in unpaid student loans for a degree she never even finished and a food delivery job that affords her no rights and minimal remuneration.
As her boss plays god with her shifts, she finds an irresistible opportunity for fast cash in a credit card fraud scheme run by the sketchy but charming Youcef (Theo Rossi). The stakes – and rewards – quickly ramp up as Emily shows a flair for the scam. Plaza, who follows up Black Bear with another darker turn, is great in a role that lets her badass side out for a rampage. One car chase offers a hold-onto-your-seat highlight.
Refreshingly, writer-director John Patton Ford‘s script never seeks to excuse Emily her past misdeeds or sugarcoat her worst impulses. She’s a messy, believable character and her journey into LA’s crime underworld in no way feels far-fetched. She’s not even the only character here who turns to crime as a means of bridging a financial chasm. Ford neatly shows how so-called victimless scams might draw in economic refugees from an unforgiving system. And how the victims soon pile up.
Aubrey Plaza is great in a role that lets her badass side out for a rampage
Best of all are three scenes which show employers and prospective employers using their positions of power to humiliate and devalue Emily. Gina Gershon pops up as a smug ad exec who is prepared to give her a six-month unpaid internship with the promise of ‘looking at a full time position’ at the end of it. Emily’s reaction might just be a punch-the-air moment for about a billion twentysomethings.
Unusually, Emily the Criminal is set in a morally neutral world where crime can pay and going straight often leads to exploitation. It’s not as edgy and adrenalised but it still reminded me of the Safdie brothers’ work in its street-level view of individuals working all the angles in an unforgiving system. As protagonists go, this is one that's going to resonate with a heck of a lot of young people.
Emily the Criminal premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.