In Emily the Criminal, a modest crime drama gets mixed with strong character work and a savage social critique of American society. The overall effect is superb: had I managed to see the film last year it likely would have made my annual top 10. As it is, and now available to stream on Netflix, it is a small gem just waiting for viewers to discover it. You should make sure that you do.
Emily (Aubrey Plaza) works as an independent contractor delivering food for a catering company. As a convicted felon she struggles to find full-time employment, or to make ends meet. A co-worker suggests she apply for a dummy shopper opportunity to earn an extra few hundred dollars. When that opportunity turns out to be a scam using dummy visa cards, a desperate Emily still goes through with the task. Once the first crime has been committed, she struggles to return to the straight-and-narrow.
First and foremost, Emily the Criminal is a showcase for lead actor Aubrey Plaza. She remains best known for her comedic work in television series Parks and Recreation, but here she demonstrates an equal talent for drama. There is a wonderful ambivalence to her performance. We learn very early on that she carries a criminal record for assault, but not why or how she gained it. She can see she is a talented artist, but her record is preventing her from finding a job in design or marketing. Even when she appears to score an interview for an entry-level position we quickly discover that life seems maliciously stacked against her (Gina Gershon makes a pitch-perfect guest appearance as the marketing executive who interviews her).
Emily’s unwanted life provides the perfect avenue for writer/director John Patton Ford to bleakly satirize America’s economy and society: everyone loves a comeback story, but there is no path to actually make that comeback. Salaries are low, unions are discouraged, and workers get exploited everywhere. Complaining about it leads to unemployment and ridicule. It is enough to make a life of crime understandable – even appealing.
Ford uses this bleak environment to do something fascinating with Emily. We meet her well into her life of hardship, and are encouraged to sympathise with her position. Her first criminal act – using a fake credit card to buy a television – seems a forgivable offence. The second? Perhaps less so. By the climax Emily is committing serious crimes in such a cold-blooded fashion that it has become near-impossible to side with her any more – but where should we have drawn the line? Was she ever a sympathetic character at all?
Tightly cut to a sharp 93 minutes, Emily the Criminal is an energetic and resonant film with strong performances (Theo Rossi is excellent as the fraudulent Youcef) and a powerful, to-the-point screenplay. It establishes Ford as a new talent to watch, and further cements Plaza’s place as one of Hollywood’s top tier talents.