Movie Review: Emily the Criminal

Would it be fair to say that BREAKING BAD was one of the best shows on TV in recent years? It’s definitely up there as one of my all-time favourites. Watching Walter White descend that slippery slope of morality episode after episode, season after season, was not just entertaining, it was educational too because it forced us to re-evaluate how far we would go to… what was his justification again? It started out as making sure his family would be looked after financially after he died but that certainly wasn’t his motivation later on.

Aubrey Plaza’s character follows a similar path in the new movie, EMILY THE CRIMINAL. Emily Benetto (Plaza, SPIN ME ROUND; BLACK BEAR; CHILD’S PLAY) is a 30-something year-old woman living in Los Angeles. Her life is getting crushed by a mountain of college debt and her job as an independent contractor for a food catering company barely covers the interest she’s paying on the loan. Compounding her problem is that she also has a felony conviction on her record, which makes her getting a well-paying job that much harder. One day, one of her co-workers hooks her up with a guy he knows who promises that she’ll earn US$200 for one hour’s work. She goes and meets Youcef (Theo Rossi, TV’s SONS OF ANARCHY) who, along with his cousin, Khalil (Jonathan Avigdon), runs a credit card fraud ring. To get the $200, all Emily has to do is purchase a large-screen TV and charge it to a fake credit card backed up by a fake ID card they make for her. She passes both this test and the next with flying colours and decides she wants to do more. She convinces Youcef that she wants in on the fraud game so Youcef provides Emily with what she needs to create her own fake credit cards and IDs. Before long, Emily is committing credit card fraud all over town and is finally getting on top of her debt situation but when she starts to get reckless, her actions put both her and Youcef’s lives in danger.

Just like Walter White, Emily is the everywoman who has been shafted by the system. Since getting out of jail, she’s been trying to do things right but she keeps getting blocked. Meanwhile, her debt continues to grow. How many young people in the US these days are feeling the way Emily does? I’ll answer that: Too many. Plaza is ideal for a role like this because she looks like she could have been an Emily if fate hadn’t taken her in a different direction. She understands Emily and makes her a likeable character even while she’s doing some not so nice things. Like Walter, Emily enjoys sticking it to the man, though she loses sight of why she started doing in the first place. It’s hard not to cheer on a character like Emily even if her grift will result in higher prices at the shops and higher credit card fees in the long run for you and me.

In his feature film debut, writer-director John Patton Ford delivers a lot with his limited budget, bringing audiences a story that is sure to resonate with Millennials and Gen Zers even if they would never consider going as far as Emily does. Performances are solid all around, including a fabulous scene near the end of the film between Plaza and Gina Gershon (RIFKIN’S FESTIVAL), where Gershon plays a woman who interviews Emily for a job. How can anyone not sympathise with Emily after that?

EMILY THE CRIMINAL premiered at Sundance last January and it had a cinema release in August before moving to other platforms. It is now on a number of streaming services, and is also available for rent and purchase. Yes, it’s an indie film, and it looks and feels like an indie film but don’t let that stop you from checking it out. Plaza hits another performance out of the ballpark.

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