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film review

Emily, played by Aubrey Plaza, is saddled with student debt and locked out of the job market due to a minor criminal record.Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

  • Emily the Criminal
  • Written and directed by John Patton Ford
  • Starring Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi and Gina Gershon
  • Classification N/A; 93 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Aug. 12

Critic’s Pick

The dark, dry and daring talents of Aubrey Plaza continue to enchant. Ever since her deadpan days perfecting the art of eye-rolling on television’s Parks and Recreation, the actress has consistently remained the best thing about whatever project she’s involved in, from 2020′s ambitious moviemaking-satire Black Bear to that same year’s otherwise dreadful queer rom-com Happiest Season. I bet that Plaza is also wonderful in the Guy Ritchie heist flick Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, but because that film has been mysteriously and indefinitely scrubbed from the 2022 release calendar, I can only wager so little.

What is a sure thing, though, is the actress’s work in Emily the Criminal, a small but sturdy study of working-class American anxiety that would be thoroughly, forgettably fine were it not for Plaza’s central performance. Playing the title character, a young Los Angeles wannabe artist whose catering job is barely helping her climb out of staggering debt, Plaza trembles with a tremulous sense what-now exasperation. An offhand suggestion from a co-worker leads Emily to an underground network of small-time credit-card scammers – a world that at first seems filthy with easy, fast, plentiful money. But, as these things go, eventually Emily gets in over her head, develops feelings for her black-market boss (Theo Rossi), and ends up in a fight for her life.

Writer-director John Patton Ford’s debut feature has the etchings of a singular vision – there are moments where the film seems to have slithered onscreen directly from L.A.’s seedier street corners and curiously empty office parks. But too much of the filmmaker’s efforts are put toward crafting a predictable rags-to-illicit-riches narrative, the twists and turns of which can be telegraphed by the simplest of criminal minds.

Faced with a series of dead-end job interviews, Emily soon finds herself seduced by the quick cash and illicit thrills of black-market capitalism, and increasingly interested in her mentor Youcef.Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Still, Ford’s film cannot be entirely discounted – the director knows a star when he sees one, and seems to retroactively contort his screenplay around the talents of Plaza as much as he can. The actress makes Emily’s plight seem relatable, unrelenting and never ever precious. As the character continues to inch herself closer to danger, all the while convincing herself that this is the only way, Plaza offers a performance that hits all the necessary, complicated emotional and empathetic registers. We want to see Emily run (away from the law) because we want to see just how far Plaza can race against the limitations of her film’s script. A memo to Plaza’s agent: Give her time off for good behaviour.

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