by: Amy Nicholson, Variety
“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.
Production Designer: Liz Toonkel