There is that time in your life when you feel lost and afraid and don’t know where your life is going. You go to school, drop out because it’s too much for you, and you end up in a dead-end job that doesn’t allow you to live your life the way you want. You aren’t living to the fullest extent of your potential. So you do something that isn’t necessarily legal to make ends meet. That’s the story of Emily the Criminal by director John Patton Ford.
The title character Emily is played by Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West, Parks and Recreation). She is working a day-to-day job delivering food for a catering service until one of her fellow employees tells her how to make some quick and easy cash. She goes to the place, and it turns out to be credit card fraud that they want her to do. She’s so desperate to make some money she accepts the deal even though it’s illegal. She gets involved with Yousef (Theo Rossi), who helps her learn the ropes.
A few movies have dealt with characters who feel they’ve got nothing to lose because they are at the bottom of a barrel. That’s this film in a nutshell. Plaza plays this character perfectly. She shows her desperation at times, making the character more engaging. Sure, what she’s doing is illegal, but it’s out of desperation that she does this. The film even shows her trying to get legitimate work; when that doesn’t work out, she resorts to this criminal activity to survive.
The director doesn’t do anything crazy with the filmmaking style. He keeps it simple. He uses close-up shots to show the reaction of various characters in the film, specifically Plaza’s character, in multiple interviews and such. How she reacts is key to how the film flows after that. Plaza plays this character as any of us would when confronted with some of the negative things that happen to her. Her emotions are the crux of her character.
Look, I know what people might be thinking. You don’t have to resort to criminal activity to get back on your feet — you just have to keep fighting and clawing your way back. Well, that’s not always the answer. Sometimes I relate to her plight — you feel like you are just hitting your head against a wall and getting nowhere. No matter how hard you try, nothing works. I’ve felt that way a lot in my life. Criminals are sometimes driven to that life out of desperation with no other path to go down.
Emily the Criminal premiered at this past year’s Sundance Film Festival to a lukewarm response. I can understand why. The subject matter isn’t the easiest to relate to for most people. On the other hand, I can relate to both sides of this story. This character reminds me of my own life right now. No, I’ve not resorted to criminal activity to make ends meet, but I understand what it means to struggle. Plaza gives an excellent performance as this desperate woman with nowhere to turn, and Ford does an equally adequate job depicting her trials and tribulations. This is a good film chronicling a struggling woman who does whatever it takes to survive. In that sense, it works.
Dan Skip Allen
Sean Boelman/EIC disappointment media