Emily the Criminal
Sundance Film Festival Premieres Section
Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: John Patton Ford
Writer: John Patton Ford
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon
Screened at: Sundance Film Festival Online, LA, 1/25/22
Opens: January 24th, 2022
If a money-making operation seems too easy, chances are that’s because it is and there’s a catch. But it may not be an inherent flaw in the system but rather a challenge, one which weeds out those who are not willing to take a considerable risk for the possibility of a major payout. Engaging in criminal enterprises, no matter the size or scale, is rarely a recommended option, but such journeys do make for enthralling and watchable cinema. Emily the Criminal lays out its perception of its protagonist in its title, preparing audiences for an illicit and dangerous ride.
Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is having trouble getting a job because she has a criminal record, and she faces a mountain of student debt. Presented with the option to make $200 in an hour, she agrees to be a dummy shopper, purchasing expensive television sets with fraudulent credit cards and quickly graduating to fancy cars and other endeavors. Determined to take initiative, a rarity for her, Emily convinces Youcef (Theo Rossi) to let her take the lead on her own operation, putting her at even higher risk and incurring suspicion from Youcef’s cousin Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori), who does not trust Emily and has no interest in working with her.
The best reason to see this film is that it stars Plaza. The actress, who rose to prominence for playing April on Parks and Recreation, has demonstrated an affinity for challenging roles, like the mind-bending Black Bear, and is also capable of stealing movies from their lead stars, as she did in Happiest Season as a flirtatious ex. This is a role that feels like it had to be played by Plaza, who dons an accent and an even grumpier attitude than usual to make Emily a worthwhile protagonist who might just as easily come undone as a result of her own demeanor as from the interference of someone intent on harming or imprisoning her.
The pacing of Emily the Criminal, which comes from writer-director John Patton Ford, making his feature debut, is also strong, enlivening scenes that might not otherwise be as magnetic by ensuring that they proceed along without interruption and completely trap viewers in their intensity. Knowing that Emily only has a set amount of time to drive away in the car before the card will without a doubt be flagged amps up a scene that ends just as quickly, since Emily trusts no one in her life and therefore must return to whatever comes next right away by shaking off a violent experience as if it never happened.
Plaza is well-paired with Rossi, an actor who has proven his talent in supporting roles on Sons of Anarchy and Luke Cage, and who is deserving of more lead parts like this one. He too gets an accent and only slightly more of a backstory than Emily, engaged in a complicated family dynamic with his cousin which feels even more threatening given the nature of their blood relationship. In this film’s short 96-minute runtime, it doesn’t really become possible to get to know Emily or Youcef all that well, though it’s clear that they’re a good pair given their shared sense of determination and singlemindedness, believing that they are the most capable of completing any given task after having been let down by others.
While its stars deliver solid performances and its content is mostly engaging, this film doesn’t feel entirely cohesive. Emily’s efforts to get a normal job with the help of her friend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) lead to a tense and memorable confrontation with a demeaning employer (Gina Gershon), but it almost feels like the scene belongs in a separate story. Emily is an interesting character in her own right, and this is merely an excerpt of what could have been a more substantial profile of her character. It still works and delivers some satisfaction, but it does leave a sense of wanting more even after its clever and well thought-out conclusion.
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B