Review: Aubrey Plaza Is Excellent in Sundance Standout “Emily the Criminal”

Plaza’s gritty, against-type performance is even better than her acclaimed turn in ”Ingrid Goes West”

There are few places in the world where the wealth divide is more evident than Los Angeles, where millionaires drive past tented homeless encampments en route back to their gated mansions.

The titular protagonist of John Patton Ford’s thriller Emily the Criminal isn’t exactly living in a tent, but she’s in dire financial straits, drowning in student loans that she will never be able to repay with her job delivering food. A headstrong Millennial, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) wants to be a graphic designer and has tried to get another gig, but with a past arrest for assault on her record, she hasn’t had much luck. So when she’s presented with the opportunity to make some fast cash by participating in a time-tested scam that requires her to commit credit card fraud, she decides that the risk is worth the reward—even though she’s smart enough to know better.

So yeah, against her better judgment, she poses for a fake ID, enters a big box store, and uses a stolen/copied credit card to buy a flat-screen TV that she knows full well will soon be sold on the street. We half-expect Emily and her racing pulse to get caught, but on the surface, she keeps her cool under pressure and walks out sans incident. It’s not exactly easy money, but it’s damn close.

With her nerves of steel, Emily is quickly taken under the wing of Youcef (Theo Rossi), a charming migrant who knows the game better than she does. Though it’s not long before those risks intensify, as do Emily’s means of protection (from pepper spray to Taser to box cutter). That’s not to say that Emily the Criminal is a particularly violent film, it’s just that the threat of violence hovers over each scene. After all, when you roll around with pigs, you wind up covered in you-know-what.

Though this is Ford’s feature directorial debut, there’s confidence behind his direction and he does a great job milking the suspense of each credit card transaction as we wait, alongside Emily, for her charges to be authorized. The handling of these scenes combined with the propulsive score from Nathan Halpern kept me on the edge of my seat. Ford also does a good job portraying the L.A. underclass, as the characters here feel lived in, so it’s not terribly surprising to learn that Ford based the script upon his own experiences with student debt.

He channels that frustration into his film, which is a meditation on the gig economy and how its benefits have largely been a lie. Plaza’s character is the vessel for his rage, though Ford is careful not to judge his protagonist for going to such extremes; nor does he sympathize with her, as the law-abiding director seems well aware that crime doesn’t pay, as the old adage goes.

Rossi has been around for two decades, bouncing from one TV show to the next, and since I never watched Sons of Anarchy (on which he was a regular), it wasn’t until Luke Cage that I really noticed him, and I’ve since come to enjoy his work in projects like True Story and American Skin. He’d have stolen this movie if it weren’t for Plaza, who is as good as she’s ever been.

Seriously, Plaza’s gritty, against-type performance is even better than her acclaimed turn in Ingrid Goes West. It’s funny, I went to NYU with the Parks and Recreation actress and never would’ve foreseen this trajectory for her career following that NBC sitcom, but she has genuinely impressed me with some of her dramatic work, and I can’t wait to see what she does in Season 2 of The White Lotus this fall. While I doubt that the Academy will recognize Plaza’s performance, this is the kind of undeniably impressive turn that the Indie Spirit Awards will be hard-pressed to ignore, and one that’s more than worth the price of admission, especially during the dog days of August.

And if it’s too nice outside for you to justify a trip to your local arthouse theater, be sure to keep an eye out for this one when it hits VOD in a few weeks. It’s the rare Sundance movie with actual commercial appeal, boasting kinetic direction and a performance from Plaza that is not to be missed.

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