Aubrey Plaza delivers a stand-out performance as a struggling artist with a criminal record who becomes involved with a credit card scam.
Aubrey Plaza’s career post-Parks and Recreation has been characterized by daring roles, taking big swings in indie fare like Ingrid Goes West, The Little Hours, and last year’s underseen gem Black Bear. In each performance, Plaza lets loose a little more, revealing her staggering emotional range. But this year’s Sundance premiere, John Patton Ford’s tense drama Emily the Criminal, is perhaps Plaza’s best performance to date. With her steely demeanor and large, intense eyes, Plaza is a force to be reckoned with a hidden brutality just waiting to be unleashed.
The film tells the story of Emily (Plaza), an ex-con dealing with crippling student loan debt and no lucrative job prospects. Her gainfully employed best friend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is hesitant to put a good word in for Emily at her job due to her criminal record. Meanwhile, she’s working a low-pay catering gig as an independent contractor with no benefits or union protection. Though she’s been making it work for as long as she can, Emily knows that if something doesn’t change her life in Los Angeles will be over. Hailing from New Jersey, Emily has no family connections in California and would have to return to the east coast in order to save money and start her life over. Her friend argues against the move, but what does she know? She has a job.
But right when all hope is lost, Emily enters the world of “dummy shopping” where working-class people like her can make money by purchasing big price items with fake credit cards and selling them for a profit under the table. The operation is run by Youcef (Theo Rossi) and Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori), two Lebanese immigrants (and brothers) trying to build a life for themselves and look after their mother. Though hesistant at first, Emily eventually throws herself into her new job, soaking up as much information about the business as she can. She takes to it quickly, using every setback as a learning opportunity. Emily’s transformation from novice to professional criminal is gradual, her ruthlessness creeping into her everyday life.
The brilliance in Emily the Criminal lies in its realism. Ford takes a relatable story–elder millennial grappling with debt, looking for work and trying to sort her personal life out–and uses it to comment on the way society sees people with a criminal record. Due to her past, Emily is treated like a criminal at every job interview, constantly forced to grovel for a living wage. And after years of being sorry, she reaches her breaking point, becoming exactly what they assumed her to be. Though tragic, it makes karmic sense–how is an ex-con supposed to survive in America if they’re stripped of opportunities to live a better life? And is it any more criminal than the nature of capitalism itself? In a world where it’s nearly impossible for the working-class to get by, Emily the Criminal is a small fish in a big pond. She’s not a hero, but she isn’t trying to be. She’s just trying to survive.
Published 31 Jan 2022
By Matthew Eng
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