Emily the Criminal is the story of a young woman just trying to get a decent job. Emily (Aubrey Plaza) has a past. It’s a past that includes felon charges which lurk in her official record, preventing certain employment options. As she grows more impatient to find ways to pay off her student debt, she comes across a high-risk, high-reward opportunity that is also illegal: dummy shopping. Using stolen credit cards and a fake ID, Emily begins stealing and selling valuable merchandise for quick cash. But with each new job, Emily gets in deeper and the stakes escalate.
What works in Emily the Criminal is the tension and Plaza’s engaging performance. Writer and director John Patton Ford does a remarkable job in his feature film debut navigating a tightrope act. With every scene he balances suspense with just right sprinkle of levity through his character interactions. The best example of this is Emily’s burgeoning relationship with Youcef (Theo Rossi), the man who introduces her to the scam. Both individuals have checkered histories and lofty ambitions which has led them to crime. But Patton takes the time to develop these individuals with care by exposing their humanity. This occurs through moments with the people they care about, but more importantly highlighting ways in which society often dismisses them as inferior. The result is a thrill ride that has the perfect combination: audiences invested in characters where the outcome and their fates are wholly uncertain.
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Individuals who don’t enjoy movies perpetually waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop may not enjoy Emily the Criminal as much as others. The whole premise of the film is Emily engaging in risky behavior that could easily land her in trouble with the law, or worse—the people she’s ripping off taking justice into their own hands. A sense of dread looms over the film, casting a long shadow of concern. Also (if not obviously) Emily the Criminal focuses on illicit behavior throughout. While Ford doesn’t glorify any of these activities or lifestyle choices, he does occasionally raise the question of whether or not culture plays a role in “forcing” people to walk down these paths—a viewpoint some may find controversial.
Emily the Criminal is a taut film. Plaza’s ability to give Emily incredible depth will draw people to her in unexpected ways, and the twists and turns ensure that their attention is never lost. While the subject matter may not be for everyone, there’s a lot to praise in this lean character drama.
Audiences can find Emily the Criminal on digital streaming platforms now.