Review: EMILY THE CRIMINAL Offers Solid Social Commentary, Stellar Aubrey Plaza Performance

Emily The Criminal
Image via Roadside Attractions
Adulthood has not been treating Emily (Aubrey Plaza) well. Although in her mid-30s, she is having trouble making ends meet. One burst of anger that led to a criminal record has been keeping her from getting a decent paying job, leaving her to juggle a number of low-paying freelance gigs to keep up with her living expenses and student loan payments. So when a chance to earn an easy, and much needed, couple of hundred dollars comes along, she jumps at the chance. Although she has some slight qualms when it turns out she is assisting with a retail store credit card scam, the ease with which she pulls it off gives her the courage to want to do it again. And again.

But Emily isn’t the only one who has had to turn to crime to keep her head above water. Youcef, the Lebanese immigrant who first introduces her to the world of credit card fraud, has dreams of using his ill-gotten gains to buy a small apartment building. They both see the system as rigged against them, a perception that will be repeatedly reinforced to Emily as her story enfolds here. They both feel no compunctions about having to engage in defrauding the establishment that is seen as being the one that is stacking the deck against them.

The debut feature from writer/director John Patton Ford, Emily The Criminal is more a class conscious character study than gritty crime drama. The idea of someone struggling with student loan debt certainly seems like it is ripped from the headlines. But it is not the prime driver for her actions, it is just one of a number of factors that have impacted her life to the point where she feels like her actions are justified.

The film is ambivalent towards Emily’s activities, passing no moral judgement on her. Although the danger of possibly being caught does loom over most of her actions, outside of a security guard who stops Emily when she accidentally walks out of a store wearing a baseball cap that she didn’t pay for, law enforcement is a non-entity for almost the entire film.

Plaza delivers a nice, low-key performance here. Her Emily is someone trying to make their way through their day, with their anger at their circumstances, and other people’s inability to empathize with them, barely held in check most of the time. Even when she does allow herself to get angry at someone, such as a duplicitous HR person she is interviewing with at the beginning of the film, we still see her holding back. She knows what her anger is capable of – her felony assault conviction – and is struggling to keep it in check.

Emily The Criminal
Image via Roadside Attractions
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About Rich Drees 7210 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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