Things have not been going well for Emily. Some of it is just terrible luck. Much of it may be due to her somewhat combative personality. But as the focal point of John Patton Ford’s “Emily the Criminal,” which debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival this week, her toe-dip into the dark side is somewhat understandable.
As portrayed with a steely determination by Aubrey Plaza (also a producer), Emily spends her days working for a food delivery company while attempting to land a permanent, “real” job. Those efforts are continually stifled by a five-year-old assault charge that she’s embarrassed to explain to employers. A charge that derailed her from a promising art school track to an existence of scouring Los Angeles for anything better than minimum wage. When she agrees to cover a shift for a co-worker at the service, he does her solid by passing along an opportunity to make an easy $200. And when she reaches out to the contact, Emily the scammer is inadvertently born. Emily the criminal? Well, not yet.
The opportunity in question is a low-level credit card scam run by Youcef (Theo Rossi, quite good) and his more threatening cousin lurking in the background. Using a fraudulent credit card and ID, she, along with other volunteers, buys high-end televisions that will inevitably be sold on the black market. It’s an in-and-out operation that lands Emily some easy money. Youcef is impressed and offers her a more difficult job, but one that will pay her 10x as much. A bloodied Emily barely gets through that grift without getting caught and is angry enough to swear it all off. But there’s something about that Youcef. He’s kinder and more compassionate than you’d expect. And, thanks to Rossi’s portrayal, without a slick façade of genuine suspicion. He has hopes and dreams and wants to get out of the game too.
Eventually, Emily gets bitten by whatever bug this is and Youcef decides to help set up her own solo operation. And while Ford puts her through the emotional wringer, she learns she’s damn good at it. And, getting smarter about it, too. Unfortunately, Youcef’s cousin doesn’t see it that way and in the third act, the actions of the larger enterprise forces Emily to go to some dangerous extremes.
Ford’s feature debut after screening a short at Sundance 12 years prior, “Emily the Criminal” doesn’t wax poetic about her illegal exploits. Emily wants to find a real career. And when her high school friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) works the system to get her an interview at her advertising agency, Emily jumps at the chance. But as with Youcef initially, nothing is what it seems. And maybe, Emily’s calling was always a darker one.
There are definitely some logical gaps in Ford’s screenplay and perhaps the consequences could be slightly more dangerous (intriguingly, guns barely appear throughout the proceedings), but as a filmmaker, he displays a keen awareness of racking up the tension when necessary and not overdoing it when it’s not. In fact, his only real mistake is waiting too long to reveal the reason for Emily’s previous run-in with the law. Still, he’s assisted by the committed Plaza who is more than game to show off her non-comedic talents. She never strays from her character, making sure the audience is on the edge of their seats and rooting for Emilly at the end when they need to be. Well, maybe. Grade: B+/B-