“Emily the Criminal,” by John Patton Ford, is a world-weary social problem fable about a young girl who enters the woods — make that, modern day Los Angeles — and confronts three big bad job interviews. One job asks her to be a crook, one job treats her like a crook, and one job pays so little it’s essentially stealing from her. The girl, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is an embittered art student with $70,000 in college debt, a felony conviction for aggravated assault and essentially no leverage to negotiate her terms of employment besides the pepper spray in her purse, which won’t help much for the two white-collar gigs. The title of this chilly thriller announces which job she picks. Her circumstances explain why. But despite the fact that the camera rarely backs away from studying Plaza’s wary eyes and tense mouth in close-up, this character piece feels as distanced from its taciturn subject as if it was merely monitoring her on security camera.
Plaza, who also produced the film, is strong as a scammer who invites sympathy and simultaneously pushes it away. Her Emily finds work as a “dummy shopper” who buys legit goods on stolen credit cards and resells her expensive purchases before the store catches on. The idea, which we only see in action twice, is that Emily must slap down big money without drawing attention to herself. It’s a fluorescent-lit noir that spends a fair amount of time near the anonymous big box stores scattered across Los Angeles, which as cinematographer Jeff Bierman sees it, is a city that’s dim even in the daylight.
Emily isn’t a local. She’s a Jersey girl — her accent announces it before she can — and here in California, she’s folded her refusal to blend in into her brand. There’s a playful moment in a party scene where she brags about her badass East Coast roots alongside her one and only friend Lucy (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a posher type on track to succeed as artist-of-sorts in corporate marketing, code for being an aspirational sell-out. That one giggle is nearly all we come to know about Emily, who’s been forced into the habit of lying about her background, besides a brief mention of a grandmother. Rather than make her a believable person, the film insists Emily is bizarrely alone for a girl who can charm the cocaine out of any rando in a bar bathroom.
This isolation gives the script an excuse to let Emily fall for her underworld boss, Youcef (Theo Rossi), a Lebanese immigrant who swears he’s just hawking stolen TVs and cars to buy his mom (Sheila Korsi) a fourplex apartment. We’re asked to believe that Youcef’s dear mama raised two polar-opposite boys: one sweetheart who seems like he’d be more at home managing an ice cream shop, and his older brother Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori), the big boss of their crooked warehouse, who shows as much loyalty to his family as a snake egg in a robin’s nest.
Emily and Youcef are united in that they’re both ambitious young people with small scale goals. Neither is out to rule the L.A. crime syndicate; they just want enough cash to feel free. Here, people like them without good options live lives that are already behind invisible bars. To Ford, choosing crime can be suspenseful — when things get tense, Nathan Halpern’s music takes on the tempo of a nervous heartbeat — but it’s not necessarily wrong if the audience can be convinced that Emily is simply defending her own right to survive.
But Emily is a criminal, too, more so than the film initially wants to let on, and while it’s to the director’s credit that he acknowledges some culpability for Emily’s own bad choices, Ford isn’t sure what he wants the audience to do with that information — or Plaza’s committed performance. There’s a good scene when Emily attends her first crime training sessions in Youcef and Khalil’s makeshift classroom, which plays out with a straight-faced mundanity as though getting trained in credit card theft is no different than learning to make sales calls. Ford makes a point of showing that she’s the only young, female, fair-skinned contractor in the room, and notes in passing that Javier (Bernardo Badillo), the man who connects Emily to the job, doesn’t get the same chance to advance.
The film offers the faintest suggestion that Emily’s best talent as a thief is that she’s able to slip around undetected and take advantage of the racist stereotype that the face of criminality is Black or brown and male, but doesn’t particularly want to explore that idea. It’s also strikingly incurious about how Emily is often a lousy crook who repeatedly bungles Youcef’s safety rules. The movie would rather the audience root for her when she’s forced to fight back against those who’ve done her dirty, even though fighting is what screwed up her life to begin with.
At best, “Emily the Criminal” uses its lead character to represent a generation forced into toxic self-reliance. Emily is one of many young adults caught in the squeeze between the costly swindle of college debt and the working world’s extortionist demand that interns do unpaid labor and be grateful for the “opportunity.” Who’s the real criminal in a broken economic system? Everyone, the film says. But it never dares to answer the follow-up question: Does Emily alone deserve a pardon?