Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: John Patton Ford
Writer: John Patton Ford
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Jonathan Avigdori, Gina Gershon, Bernardo Badillo, and Megalyn Echikunwoke
By Valerie Kalfrin
Unflinching and unapologetic, the taut crime drama “Emily the Criminal” shows a woman on the wrong side of the law who digs herself in further through desperation, frustration, and especially anger.
Aubrey Plaza (“Black Bear,” “Criminal Minds”) is riveting as Emily, a thirtysomething former art student from New Jersey now working at a Los Angeles catering business. She shares an apartment with a woman she barely knows, makes payments toward tens of thousands in student loan debt, and feels trapped trying to play by the rules.
A conviction for assault a few years earlier derailed Emily’s art school education and most of her employment prospects. In the opening moments, she interviews for a job handling medical records. Writer-director John Patton Ford keeps the camera on Emily in a medium closeup while the offscreen interviewer asks her about any arrests, testing if she’ll come clean.
She understandably doesn’t, and when the interviewer reveals he already knows her background, Plaza segues from shock to outrage, barely concealing defeat and despair. “Why would you trick somebody like that?” she asks as the interviewer insists on honesty.
When a co-worker (Bernardo Badillo, “Queen of the South”) needs help covering his shift, he sweetens the request by giving her a phone number where she can earn $200 in an hour. So begins Emily’s introduction into the underground world of credit card fraud.
Cousins Youcef (Theo Rossi, “True Story”) and Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori, TV’s “The Lincoln Lawyer”) run this operation. They’re upfront about breaking the law but say no one will have to hurt anyone. They send Emily and others with fake cards and IDs to buy flat-screen TVs from big box stores, then pay these gofers in cash, reselling the goods. Each job is a one-off, no strings attached, but they have similar gigs, more dangerous ones, if anyone’s interested.
Making his feature debut, Patton Ford keeps viewers in Emily’s corner using closeups and medium closeups as she learns the dangerous ropes. Her decisions flow naturally, and a key strength of “Emily the Criminal” is how it presents her choices without judgment or manipulating the audience.
Honesty and economics are two threads that Patton Ford braids throughout the film. Emily’s art school friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke, “Almost Family”) promises she’ll talk up Emily to her boss (Gina Gershon, “New Amsterdam”), then offers reasons she can’t. When Emily winds up bloodied on a job, Youcef tells her he thought it was safe. “That’s why you pay somebody else to do it,” she replies.
Plaza, one of the film’s producers, gives Emily a New Jersey accent and swagger, but behind that toughness is someone trying to do right where the rules don’t seem to benefit her. Her catering boss changes her shift without warning because she’s an independent contractor, not an employee. Later, someone dangles a job that’s really an unpaid internship, expecting Emily to be grateful and calling her spoiled when she’s not.
She and Rossi form a companionable chemistry, their characters viewing this criminal detour as temporary. The kind-eyed Youcef wants to own an apartment building and take care of his mother. Emily just wants to be free to travel, to live life unencumbered. Like the women in the thrillers “Widows” (2018) and “Set It Off” (1996), she’s weary of living life on other people’s terms.
Now playing in limited release, “Emily the Criminal” grows in suspense as each action builds on another, with realistic twists. The film has no simple solutions, and Emily’s pent-up anger at her circumstances bursts into brutality, where she discovers she’s better at this than she wanted to be.
There may be no honor among thieves, but at least among them, Emily knows where she stands.