Can student debt drive a young person into a life of crime? For Emily of the new movie “Emily the Criminal,” it’s certainly the main motivator, though other factors such as an innately combative personality contribute in her transformation to criminal from catering courier.
The movie begins with Emily at a job interview, during which she explains away an arrest on her record as a simple DUI. Then the interviewer tells her that he ran a background check after initially saying he hadn’t, and that he knows she was convicted of aggravated assault.
After a moment’s awkwardness, they agree to start over and he asks her to explain the incident. She then decides not to and erupts at his subterfuge (and possibly her own). Needless to say, she doesn’t get the job. It’s an impressive opening scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film, making it clear that we’re going to be in the company of a volatile yet strangely compelling personality for the duration.
Emily is played by Aubrey Plaza, the idiosyncratic actress best known for her role as the apathetic millennial assistant on the TV show “Parks and Recreation.” In the last several years, Ms. Plaza has starred in several great indie movies, such as 2017’s “Ingrid Goes West” and 2020’s “Black Bear.” Could she be the Parker Posey of the current era? Possibly, but she’s also demonstrated that she’s not afraid of taking on difficult roles, including unstable, almost-unlikable characters.
In “Emily the Criminal,” Ms. Plaza’s wide, impatient, searching eyes approach Bette Davis-level expressiveness. Initially, the viewer sees how she reacts to her day-to-day life, with her job and apartment chores taking up a large portion of her time; then a co-worker recommends a side gig as a “shopper” to make some extra money. She attends a meeting, where it becomes apparent that the enterprise is a criminal operation that uses stolen credit card numbers to buy high-value items at various stores.
Emily almost walks out after discovering these details, but she’s stopped by the frontman, Youcef, who takes an interest in her. After an anxious-but-successful “purchase,” she’s given the option to make even more money on another job; she reluctantly decides to go for it.
This second nefarious shopping excursion involves a luxury vehicle that’s being sold by what seems to be another criminal outfit. Filmed tensely and tersely, this sequence ends in violence but she does get the vehicle to her employers and is given $2,000 for her troubles. After this, Youcef agrees to teach her the back end of the business, without telling his cohorts. As their relationship turns romantic, Emily dives deeper into criminality.
First-time filmmaker John Patton Ford is to be commended for crafting a movie that reflects the compromises many young Americans and immigrants must make when faced with low-paying hourly jobs and limited advancement opportunities. His use of tight framing and cinéma verité-style angles bring immediacy to a story already brimming with apprehension and excitement.
His choice of actors is spot-on as well, with Ms. Plaza, Theo Rossi as Yousef, Jonathan Avigdori as Khalil, and Megalyn Echikunwoke as Emily’s friend Liz all turning in fantastic performances. Even Gina Gershon is effective in her one scene as a potential boss for Emily at an ad agency — another of the character’s bids for respectability.
As the movie hurled toward its climax, though, I couldn’t help but feel that it was contriving to come up with a big ending instead of basing its plot and dialogue on character-based decisions and scenarios. Such are the strictures of genre filmmaking, and “Emily the Criminal” definitely fits the crime drama description in its modest way. Still, it would have been great to see Mr. Ford go in another direction.
In the movie’s coda, he does grant Emily some grace if not exactly wisdom. We see Emily on a beach and then starting a new venture, and it’s apparent from Ms. Plaza’s eyes that she’s the same testy personality she was before. She doesn’t so much grow from her experience as grow into her true nature — and it’s a riveting realization.