Contrary to what many movies would have you believe, not all people who commit crimes are evil people. A good number of them go down the wrong path because they find themselves in a situation where committing a crime is the only solution that seems possible, with the hope of getting back to the straight and narrow soon thereafter.
That’s the kind of circumstance for Emily (Aubrey Plaza) in Emily the Criminal. She works as a delivery driver for a restaurant/catering company, a low-paying job that does nothing to make a dent in the $70,000 of student loan debt she has. The stress of the debt boils over in a couple of job interviews, giving her few other options.
When a co-worker gives her number to call to make $200 in an hour for a mysterious job, she stumbles into a criminal enterprise. Using stolen credit cards provided by Youcef (Theo Rossi), she and others buy merchandise to be resold on the black market. But when Youcef takes a shine to her, Emily gets sucked in to something that’s bigger than she could have expected.
Writer/director John Patton Ford, making his feature debut, puts together a solid film, immersing viewers in Emily’s desperation and showing how easy one could be seduced by “easy” money. Even though her early work for Youcef results in some trauma, the crushing amount of debt that she has keeps her hooked, especially when Youcef offers to let her set up her own side hustle.
Likewise, the film maintains viewer interest by shifting its goals. At heart, Emily believes herself to be a good person, so she keeps trying to do the right thing even when she wants to do the wrong thing. This constant balancing of the scales keeps the viewer on her side despite some actions that should make people question her motives.
Still, after a strong start, the story starts to fade toward the end. The bond between Emily and Youcef is never that strong, and so escalating events involving the two of them come off as less important than they should. There are also multiple instances where it seems like things should go more sideways for Emily than they do, lessening the believability factor.
While Plaza has perfected the aloof character dating from her days on Parks and Recreation, this role allows her to show off a different side of herself. She is more vulnerable and tougher at the same time, the latter aided by a slight New Jersey accent. Rossi, best known from Sons of Anarchy, is the only other person who makes a real impact on the film.
Emily the Criminal is a type of morality tale where the morals get squishier the more the film goes along. You may not agree with everything Emily does, but thanks to a really good performance by Plaza, you’ll still be rooting for her.
Emily the Criminal opens in theaters on August 12.