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Sundance 2022 Review: Emily the Criminal – “Another impressive outing from Aubrey Plaza”

Aubrey Plaza appears in Emily the Criminal by John Patton Ford, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Low Spark Films.

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is absolutely drowning under the weight of her student debt, $70,000 that she owes from her time in art school.  She’s currently working in food delivery, barely making a dent in the amount she owes, no matter the hours she puts in at the thankless job.  So when she gets an opportunity from a co-worker to make $200 for one hour of her time, she calls the number he provides.

When she gets to the given address, there are several people already there.  They’re told that what they are going to do will be illegal, but it doesn’t hurt anyone.  Youcef (Theo Rossi) provides them with fake identification and stolen credit card numbers.  All they have to do is go into a store and buy big-ticket items, like large screen televisions, and bring them to a van in the parking lot where they’ll collect their $200.  However, as we see from her nights out on the town, Emily likes to take things to the extreme, and in order to bring in more money, as well as to feel the thrill of the steal, she agrees to continue in the black market operation.  Soon, Youcef is mentoring her in the business, but as the number of scams they pull increases, so does the danger they face.

Check out our Sundance Film Festival coverage
Emily the Criminal, written and directed by John Patton Ford, showcases yet another impressive outing from Plaza, a favourite of Sundance who last appeared there in 2020’s Black Bear (a strange yet awesome film to check out if you haven’t already).  Aubrey Plaza continues to push herself and her range in a way that is wonderfully effective.  She mentioned in the Q&A that she only really wants to take on projects that scare her, and this method of selection has certainly been successful.  She shines here in what I think is her best performance yet, especially as her character passes the point of no return.

Ford uses this thriller to work in his own social commentary, including thoughts on the gig economy and its effects on its workers. But there are also some pretty compelling critiques of how difficult it is to reform and rebuild when criminal charges are in your past.  It’s portrayed in the success of Emily’s art school friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) who is working fancy photography gigs while Emily, who has a DUI and a felony assault on her record, can’t land such a job.  Even when Liz manages to get her an interview at an advertising agency, Emily’s informed by the boss (Gina Gershon) that the position is an internship and she’ll have to work for free for the experience – an impossible reality for most, including her.  While she’s told at that interview that no one is ‘out to get her,’ for Emily the system certainly is.  With all these things working in opposition, it’s easy to root for Emily, and easy to see why she is pushed towards being ‘Emily the Criminal.’  It’s the one thing she can now control.

With Emily the Criminal, John Patton Ford manages to produce a well-made indie thriller, even managing to stretch his budget for a small car chase scene. But despite the fast pacing of the film (many scenes are quite short), for me the film didn’t really get too ‘thrilling’ until its last third.  That may be some festival fatigue talking, or perhaps its the fact that Emily is so good at her newfound job that she rarely seems to be in a predicament she cannot handle (that said there is a scene with a dog that for me was a particular nail biter).  However, Emily the Criminal is an entertaining enough watch, and for Plaza’s continued transformation alone, certainly more than worth your time.


For those sensitive to scenes with animals: the dog is OK!

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