‘Emily the Criminal’ Movie Review [Sundance 2022]: Aubrey Plaza’s Crime Drama Is a Steal

Emily the Criminal is an above-average crime thriller with some specific stand-out moments. Writer/director John Patton Ford puts a modern twist on the genre. Emily the Criminal provides social commentary on the system that puts countless people into extreme debt. It’s a film about second chances and what one is willing to do with them.

‘Emily the Criminal’ tries to resolve debt

'Emily the Criminal' Aubrey Plaza as Emily with blood on her cheek
Aubrey Plaza as Emily | Sundance Institute/Low Spark Films

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is down on her luck and stuck in a huge amount of debt. She works in food service but wants to get a job that pays worthwhile money. However, no employer will hire her after performing a background check. Emily is starting to think that she will need to move back in with her family in order to save money.

On one fateful day, one of Emily’s co-workers clues her in on an opportunity to make extra money. However, it requires her to get involved in an illegal scam. As a result, she gets pulled into the criminal underworld of Los Angeles. She will soon discover that all bad choices have consequences.

Writer/director John Patton Ford explores a generational shift

Emily the Criminal opens on an important job interview, although her prior convictions stop her from getting the job. She’s not afraid to speak up against authority and explain the heavy burden of high student debt. Emily’s dead-end job is increasingly exhausting, but she’s determined to stay in LA if she’s able to make it work.

The illegal scam jobs start fairly simple, which leads Emily to believe that she could continue doing this to make the money that she needs. However, they grow increasingly difficult. Emily doesn’t back down from the challenge, as dangerous figures try to victimize her. However, she’s deceivingly resourceful and quickly turns the table. Ford’s screenplay recognizes that she’s crossing moral boundaries, but it still gets the audience to root for her.

Emily the Criminal finds the title character developing a relationship with her crime mentor, Youcef (Theo Rossi). This further complicates the nature of the game, but Emily will still pursue the mission that she signed up for. Other job opportunities present themselves, although she finds herself in a capitalist world that seems even more dangerous and uncomforting than the criminal underworld. A clear generational shift in workplace habits is visibly at work.

Aubrey Plaza elevates an otherwise slightly above average ‘Emily the Criminal’

Emily the Criminal explores the ever-frustrating job market. The title character deals with employers taking advantage of her time, asking her to work for free, and cornering her about her past. Ford’s screenplay is largely so accessible because it taps into the real world in a way that is particularly timely for so many.

Plaza is the film’s biggest highlight. This is a fascinating role for the actor, allowing her to play a role that audiences typically don’t see her in. However, she handles all of the character’s nuances with ease. Plaza brings both drama and humor to Emily, creating a multi-dimensional and fully-realized character. This is why audiences can’t seem to get enough of seeing her on the big screen.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Emily the Criminal. Plaza’s performance and some of the nail-biting plans certainly make for a great moviegoing experience. However, it derails a bit in the third act into a direction that doesn’t tonally fit with the remainder of the film. Emily the Criminal is all about new beginnings and taking chances, which Ford entertainingly accomplishes for his lead.

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