Emily the Criminal ~ a review by Dora Endre

“What do you do for a living?
Well, hmm, credit card fraud.”

First time feature filmmaker, John Patton Ford, really puts flesh on the bone by delving into a painfully relevant 30s people’s problem. Economic pressure and fallen dreams.

Our title character, Emily (Aubrey Plaza), is in a majorly ignored and very common situation; she has $70,000 in student debt, left art school without graduating to take care of her family and still lives with roommates – whose only hobby seems to be bingeing Netflix and being under her feet. She submits application after application, works crappy day jobs, self-harms by taking drugs and drinking, and tries her luck at job interviews. However, Emily has a criminal record, whether it is due to drunk driving or assault is ambiguous at first. Her best friend from college, Liz, represents everything Emily could have been and is now jealous of. If only she had a more stable upbringing and a clear criminal record… Liz is rapidly moving up the ladder, travels internationally and rents a high-scale apartment.

Emily is intense, cool-headed and direct. She speaks up, even if it would not be advised. Whenever it comes to anything she considers being unjust, impolite or unfair, she opens her mouth. She sticks with her gun, and makes her own rules and does not hesitate to push back against the system.

Ford’s drama-thriller offers a strong social commentary, meditations on worker’s rights, the role of unions and the hopelessness of career starters. Let’s admit it, many open positions on today’s labour market, especially internships, resemble slavery. In a brilliant scene, Emily confronts the head of an L.A. based ad company. After a lengthy process and much begging, she gets a job interview with the big boss lady just to find out she is just about to be offered a 6-month unpaid internship at the company. Would serving coffee pay her rent?

As our heroine (villain) feels absolutely stuck in the apathy of perceptiveness, her colleague at a high-stress catering job gives her a mysterious phone number. The number leads Emily to the charismatic Youcef (Theo Rossi) who runs a few too many shady businesses. First, he offers her a “dummy shopper” gig, paying $200 for an hour’s work. The task seems simple, she is asked to take a fake credit card and a fake driver’s ID, head to an appliance store, buy an expensive item and return it to Youcef and his team for reselling. After the first, adrenaline pumped successful round Emily wants more. Subsequently, Youcef puts her on riskier and riskier “missions’ with a sharply increasing payout. Their relationship soon starts blossoming and eventually they turn into partners in life and in crime.

Plaza not only stars in, but also produces the frequently unexpected film. She brings fallibility, millennial arrogance, raw truthfulness and a precisely crafted physical life to the part. One could easily see her playing the head of any mob in any blood-soaked story. She charges the movie with tension and playfulness as Emily swirls down into a muddy criminal underworld.

Ford’s debut has an even, dynamic rhythm to it and shows an everyday, generational problem through an engrossing, mature lens. Leading a decent life has never been this difficult – he says.

I caught myself thinking, is this what would have happened to Lydia Tár (Todd Field’s fictional conductor genius) without having good connections and a well-to-do girlfriend? Otherwise, humble beginnings: tick. New Jersey: tick. Raw talent: tick.

P.S.: Look out for the “We Are Hiring” sign in the Starbucks window as Emily walks down the street. The sign and its placing in THAT sequence are just brilliant.

Watch Emily the Criminal on Netflix, Vudu, Prime Video, Redbox or Apple TV.

~ by Dora Endre ~