Emily the Criminal comes to us from writer/director John Patton Ford, here making his feature debut. What we’ve got here is a straightforward rags-to-riches crime thriller premise, as the eponymous Emily (played by producer Aubrey Plaza) is stuck in a professional rut and turns to a life of crime for lack of any other way to make money. We’ve certainly seen no shortage of films with a similar premise, but this one’s got more than enough brains and teeth to stand out from its peers in this lane. Let’s take it from the top.

Emily is a young woman who moved to LA to try and make a career as an artist, but she’s got everything working against her. She had to drop out of college due to an illness in the family, and she never went back to school because towering student and medical debts meant she had to start working full-time. Trouble is, due to a bullshit felony assault charge from 2016 (I won’t get into details here), Emily’s job options are severely limited. The best she can get for right now is work as an independent contractor (meaning her boss is free to screw her out of working hours at any time) making deliveries for a catering company.

The plot begins in earnest when Emily flukes her way into an elaborate “dummy spending” scheme masterminded by an amoral Lebanese immigrant named Youcef (Theo Rossi). Here’s the basic gist.

  1. Youcef pulls stolen credit card information from online brokers.
  2. Youcef uses the real credit card info to forge duplicate credit cards.
  3. Youcef finds people like Emily who are so hard-up for cash that they’re willing to serve as lackeys for an hour or so.
  4. Youcef hands the cards out to his new lackeys, along with phony driver’s licenses just in case.
  5. The lackeys use the dupe credit cards to buy high-end electronics and other valuable goods.
  6. Youcef takes delivery of the fraudulent purchases, gives each lackey $200 in cash for the trouble, then turns around and sells the goods at a profit.

At this point, it bears mentioning that Emily does make a good-faith effort to try and go legit. She does her level best to keep up her day job with catering delivery. She has a side gig petsitting for her friends. Most of all, she’s keeping in touch with an old college friend (Liz, played by Megalyn Echikunwoke) who’s making every possible effort to get Emily a graphic design job with a reputable ad agency.

But then the student loan payments come due. And Emily loses her job offer because of her bullshit felony conviction. And her job screws her out of money and/or hours due to bad luck beyond her control. And Liz’s efforts at helping her end up going bust. Every time the system fails or outright shafts Emily, it drives her deeper and deeper into the underworld of credit card fraud.

Then again, the film takes pains in pointing out how Emily’s criminal occupation only widens the distance between her and the civilian population. It was frankly hard enough for her to hobknob with her fellow artists when she’s been too busy living hand-to-mouth to do any real drawing. But networking is even harder now that she can’t really talk about her work or colleagues or valuable skills without incriminating herself.

Speaking of which, the filmmakers are always acutely aware that even if Emily only engaging in strictly non-violent crimes, she’s not involved in anything remotely safe. She’s dealing with hardened criminals who could rob her or seriously harm her without fear of any legal reprisal. For her part, Emily is refreshingly clear-eyed about the whole situation. She outright asks Youcef about the potential pitfalls and the two of them are constantly open about the fact that they can only trust each other so far. Moreover, though Emily never carries a gun, she goes into every engagement with pepper spray or a Taser or some other kind of non-lethal defense.

Easily the single most important thing about Emily is that she will not allow herself to be bullied. Whether it’s standing up to a thug trying to rob her at knifepoint or a potential boss interviewing her for a non-paying internship, Emily knows her value and she will always stand up to get what’s rightfully (though not always legally) hers. This is the heart and core of her development arc, and watching Emily the Criminal discover courage that carries over to Emily the Job Hunter is immensely satisfying in a subversive kind of way.

This movie is all about a business partnership — and eventually, an ill-advised romance arc — between a millennial woman crushed by student debt and a felony record; and a Lebanese immigrant. Putting these two people front and center only further establishes the movie as a searing indictment of the American Dream. In some way or another, each individual scene in the movie serves as a further demonstration of how prosperity has become so exclusive that for so many reasons, success can be utterly impossible within the system. At some point, when criminal activity is the only way for anyone to make even a living wage, what do we expect people to do?

Don’t get me wrong, the filmmakers never come anywhere remotely near condoning the criminal activities of Emily or Yousef. Indeed, there’s an underlying sense of doom throughout the entire picture, and the filmmakers are keenly aware that we’re all waiting for the bottom to fall out. But at the same time, the filmmakers don’t exactly condemn the criminal behavior, certainly nowhere near as much as they condemn the system that created Emily and Yousef in the first place.

Aubrey Plaza delivers a tour-de-force performance, putting her dramatic chops and dry wit to sublime use in this dynamic role. Still, I’d say that Theo Rossi earns a ton of praise here, effortlessly delivering a male lead who’s easy to trust and fall in love with even as he raises one red flag after another. Echikunwoke is charming enough in the “well-intentioned best friend” role, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine strategic placement of Gina Gershon’s speaking cameo role.

I have no problem at all giving Emily the Criminal a full recommendation. It’s incisive, whip-smart, compelling condemnation of the American Dream as only the best of crime thrillers can deliver. It’s a marvelous showcase for Aubrey Plaza and an outstanding writing/directing debut for John Patton Ford. In these August doldroms, when worthy new releases are scarce, this is absolutely more than worth your time and money and attention.

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