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Movie Review: Criminal Emily

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Aubrey Plaza as Emily SUNDANCE INSTITUTE/LOW SPARK FILM

“You’re a really bad influence,” character tells Emily Benetto mid-show Criminal Emily, the feature debut from writer-director John Patton Ford about a woman forced to go to extreme lengths to pay off her student debts. In a way, it’s true: Emily, played with intense complexity by Aubrey Plaza, has unconventional morals that allow her to engage in increasingly dangerous criminal activity. On the other hand, our protagonist is simply trying to survive in a system that was not put in place for her.


EMILY THE CRIMINAL ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: John Patton Ford
Written by: John Patton Ford
With : Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Gina Gershon, Megalyn Echikunwoke
Operating time: 93 mins.


JThe audience meets Emily at a job interview, where the interviewer tricks her into admitting an aggravated assault conviction. The character, who currently works as a catering delivery boy, has a college debt of $70,000 and has an art school degree that doesn’t do him any favors. She desperately needs a better-paying job to reduce her borrowing, but, as becomes clear in the opening scene, there are certain expectations society has of us, and Emily isn’t meeting them. She is trapped by her loans, by her criminal record, by the boredom of her life and by her own inability to take action.

That all changes, however, when Emily’s co-worker offers her a phone number on a piece of paper and the chance to earn $200 in an hour. The offer sounds too good to be true, and in some ways it is. When Emily arrives at work, Yusuf (Theo Rossi) sets her up with a stolen credit card and sends her to a store to buy a flat screen TV – any flat screen will do, he says. After the TV is loaded into a van, Emily receives an envelope of money and an offer to come back the next day for a bigger job for $2,000.

As Emily delves deeper into the criminal underworld, she finds herself increasingly adept at playing with the system. Things go wrong – more than once – but she always manages to get back on her feet. Ford isn’t interested in a slick, high-speed thriller, and the action in Criminal Emily feels grounded in reality. Plaza, whose dramatic presence is as compelling as her comedic talent, imbues the character with genuine vulnerability alongside her courage. When an attempted car theft goes awry, Emily is visibly shaken, with Plaza portraying the trauma of the event in shocking fashion. But what lifts Emily past these terrifying moments is the anger that reverberates beneath everything she does.

It would be easy to categorize Emily as an anti-hero, but that term seems to undermine how easily any of us could fit in. His life is the reality for many: As of December, 44.7 million Americans had outstanding student loan debt. And how many of these people regularly repay these loans with confidence? Ford based the story on some of his own experience struggling to pay off $90,000 in student loans and working as a food delivery boy to just cover the interest each month, and it’s an experience many viewers will likely relate to. . Where is the breaking point? When are we ready to do whatever it takes to make this debt disappear?

For Emily, the answer is yes, even to violence and betrayal. She discovers how easy it is to go from drinking coke in a bar bathroom to running her own credit card fraud ring. Watching her step into that side of herself is captivating, in part because we, too, wonder what we might be capable of. After the failed car theft, Yusuf, who eventually becomes Emily’s confidant and lover, inquires, “Can’t you make money any other way?” She replies, pointedly,You you can not do otherwise? This path, for Emily, is a choice brought about by having no choice.

The film, which premiered this week at Sundance, is a perfectly tense 90 minutes and a standout moment for Plaza, who also produced. She is best known for comedies like Parks and recreationbut Plaza’s work in independent films like Ingrid goes west and Black bear has long since revealed another facet of her talent as an actress. Here she is undeniable, a pleasure to watch as she grapples with Emily’s increasingly complicated decisions. The final shots, which dwell on Plaza’s face, reveal more than any dialogue. Plaza’s continued determination to bring out the authenticity of the story actually makes the film darker than it would be as a traditional thriller. His Emily is any one of us, breaking free from a system aimed at suppression.


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