Emily The Criminal (2022) Review – Sundance Film Festival

Aubrey Plaza stars in a by-the-book nail-biter that provides mild thrills and even less food for thought despite its grand ambitions to be a socially-engaged commentary. Nonetheless, Fans of Plaza’s previous works will surely relish.

A down-on-luck girl Emily (Aubrey Plaza) comes undone in her hunt for a job. Life’s no bed of roses – a massive student loan pulls Emily further into a financial collapse, meanwhile, a few bumps on the road in the past make it impossible to secure a career. Pushed to the limits and with little space to pivot her options, Emily signs up for a shady dummy-shopper gig she learns about from a colleague. The scam seems rather innocent and provides instant gratification. A one-time con won’t do much, therefore driven by her hunger for more, Emily inquires about the next deal.

The backbone of Emily The Criminal (2022) is that even law-abiding citizens fall prey to the promise of making a quick buck. If the good guys can turn bad eventually, then Emily’s clear conscience was deemed to be forfeited. To be precise, Emily has not been an exemplary member of society. Director John Patton Ford lets his monster out of the cage right in the opening scene. Emily stretches her muscles as she deploys a passive-aggressive speech, and means of blackmail to win the high grounds in a job interview that – nevertheless – goes south. Winning the argument can’t secure a steady pay, but – rather than that – helps Emily regain confidence. Much needed confidence, as Ford’s writing suggests early on that the protagonist struggled for a while now. Despite the solid educational background, the only consequence of getting a degree is massive debt.

Ford doesn’t focus too much on Emily’s past though. Bits of the whole image are enough to provide necessary context. She’s desperate to get a head-start and willing to usurp power through means that aren’t necessarily legal. That’s a great setup for Aubrey Plaza, who has recently excelled in bonkers spectacles about deeply-troubled individuals. Plaza channels anger with a single gaze, saving words and voice for the most turning moments. At the same time, there’s both vulnerability and resilience present in Emily’s composure, an explosive mix that’s been put to sleep for too long. Thus that’s not only the beating heart of the film but also its unbreakable spine.

Following The Black Bear (2020), Aubrey Plaza once again proves she’s got a knack for exploring slowly-brewing maniacs, immersing herself entirely. If I was to find any comparison to her performance, the name of Robert Pattinson in Good Time (2017) pops up immediately, combined with shades of Rebecca Hall’s intensity in Resurrection (2022) that screened at Sundance 2022 too. Plaza is destined to be a big name soon and I can’t wait for her to break through with a film that will equal her dedication.

That being said, Aubrey Plaza carries the whole film on her shoulders and the fatigue appears more and more clearly. Emily The Criminal (2022) meanders, yet not in a free-solo manner that would be an enthralling no-brakes ride that the film begged to be. On the contrary, Ford tries too hard not to compartmentalize the story by adding various issues and sub-plots which altogether only dilute the final kick. On the one hand, Ford wants to make his film about the hardship of the middle class forged through dreams of making it big after years of renouncements, sacrifices, and tears. Let’s face the truth – how messed up is living with numbers attached to your credit before you start earning? How easily does society come undone regarding people who stumbled on their way?

These are real problems, but in order to talk about them and end on a high note, you need the script with Big Short’s (2016) sharpness and tenacity. Ford isn’t McKay, while his film does not provide such a broad landscape. Despite the solid beginnings, most of the plot threads are not developed, because Ford’s attention is scattered. In an example, the director moves towards a relationship that Emily develops – a peculiar choice of a soulmate who is her new unofficial employer Youcef (Theo Rossi). Arguably, Rossi presents a curious counterargument to Plaza, while his role is an unexpected twist that aids the predictability of the film. Although he’s dealing with pretty off-the-books shenanigans, Ford sculpts Youcef as a rock for Emily – he’s the hand that she reaches out for. However, the more we drift into their relationship, the less universal the social dimension of the family matters. Again, the focus is gone.

Occasionally, Emily The Criminal (2022) rises to its thriller aspirations. While the film never leaves one gasping for air in awe, Ford provides a few scenes that hit hard. Such is the scene of a robbery that firstly positions Emily as the victim – the spot she’s too familiar with – only to reverse-engineer the subliminal message of that moment in the story. In moments such as this one, Ford succeeds at exhibiting an invincible character that loses its skin and morphs into a whole new, much different being. He also avoids making the overly feministic story out of Emily The Criminal (2022), letting the sexuality of the protagonist play a secondary fiddle. How I see it is that the above allows this film to feel universal – a point of reference for the whole generation of people whose dreams collapsed upon entering the labor market.

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