Emily the Criminal

Year: 2022
Production Co: Low Spark Films
Director: John Patton Ford
Writer: John Patton Ford
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Gina Gershon

There are issues movies and movies about plots, but sometimes the best movies are ones that not only tell us a story while teaching us something about the world, but which do so as seamlessly as this.

On the surface it's not the most gripping or well directed film around (although, paradoxically, it is astonishingly well directed – more below), but it's one I keep thinking about weeks later and I suspect will continue to long into the future for one simple reason, and that's the theme (which I'll also get to).

The story introduces us to Emily (Aubrey Plaza), an artistic but sardonic young woman who studied art but has let her interest lapse while trying to make ends meet working long shifts in a corporate catering company.

She's drowning in student debt from a degree that's done her no good and because of a felony on her record she can't get a decent job despite being well presented and professional enough, as we see in an incisive opening scene where an otherwise well meaning employer asks her about it and she tries to hide it, but when it becomes apparent he knows regardless and questions her integrity she gives up in anger and leaves.

When a colleague tells her about an opportunity for some quick cash she's intrigued enough, even though the method (text a number, wait for a response, tell them who vouches for her) seems dodgy.

And it is. She shows up at a nondescript warehouse with a dozen or so other people where a Middle Eastern looking man, Youcef (Theo Rossi) quite openly describes the job using fake credit cards linked to stolen accounts to buy and fence goods.

For some reason he takes a shine to Emily, convinced she'd be good at it, and despite her nerves on her first gig when she goes to buy a TV, she is. Getting closer to Youcef but unsure about the rest of his band, Emily takes on bigger and bigger jobs, from buying an entire sport scar to creating fake cards herself with a special machine, and she's suddenly getting ahead of life.

But it's not all rosy. The car heist nearly goes wrong when the dicey salesmen behind the deal find her out, Emily only just getting away in the nick of time.

She also falls victim to a common scam in her newfound profession finding herself lying on her apartment floor with a Stanley knife to her throat while a guy and his skank girlfriend ransack her apartment for the cache of money they know she'll have.

All while this is going on, Emily's been talking to her advertising friend Liz, who keeps vaguely promise she'll get Emily a shot at an art position at her agency so she can go legit (which she ultimately knows she must).

Now firmly entrenched with Youcef in a romantic relationship, he admits to her that his dodgy co-workers (actually cousins) are fleecing him, and at Emily's prompting, they decide to turn the tables, staging a dramatic and daring sting of their own to get what they're owed.

That's the story. The theme, by contrast, is modern economic slavery, especially in America. Emily has educated herself, is in debt she'll likely never get out of as a consequence, and the job market is a buyer's paradise where there's nothing but contract gigs where hours can be cut at any time (and are).

For one thing, the title itself contains no small amount of irony. Emily is indeed a criminal, but what other choice does she have with a soaring cost of living, the continued erosion of secure and stable work and the college education system that leaves her and her peers owing money for most of their lives?

It comes to a head in a single brilliant scene, one that isn't even really part of the main story. She finally gets some time with Liz's studio manager, Alice (Gina Gershon) and the interview seems like it's going great until Alice says the damning words 'internship'.

Emily suddenly realises it's not for a job at all, but just another form of financial bondage – the system in America where companies can ask people to work for free (and for ridiculously long periods, depending on the competitiveness of the industry) and then maybe give them a job at the end of it.

Alice tells Emily she'll put her on for almost six months unpaid and when Emily reacts accordingly and Alice gets on her high horse, the script issues a few choice takedowns.

She accuses Emily of being spoilt (the older generation's common view of people Emily's age who have bills but are expected to work full time for no pay). She says all she had the opportunity to be was a secretary and how she was the only woman in a room full of men but as Emily points out, that still meant she had a paid job.

Alice is arguing about the new economic model of paying your dues and women's equality and has no idea Emily's arguing about just surviving, something the economy has rendered impossible in the years since. Like all the other opportunities for work facing a woman in her position, credit card fraud is the only avenue with any real promise.

The reason I called it astonishingly well directed by writer/director John Patton Ford, ably supported by the performances and so beautifully established right from the opening scene, is because there's such a tone of verite realism you believe in every emotional beat of Emily's story completely.

Even with Plaza's naturally deadpan style it's brilliantly pitched, and it makes the moments of real danger (the car escape, the goon break-in) all the more realistic and heightened.

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