I am finally getting back into a rhythm with seeing and reviewing films on a more regular basis. I wanted to see this one badly and even double-dipped with a concert and a movie on the same night to make that happen! Emily the Criminal is a smartly-executed, street-level crime drama that wisely spends its energy on engaging its thriller elements rather than trying to glamorize itself like many other films under the “crime-drama” umbrella.
A woman, who is burdened by excessive debt and stains on her permanent record, engages in a credit card scam that opens the doors to the seedy Los Angeles underbelly and her own personal ambition.
Aubrey Plaza is one of those actors who I have to watch because of the kinds of roles she takes on. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also a skillful performer, but it’s the fact that she takes chances on characters that fall outside the mainstream narrative. This is another great example of how she can take a character that isn’t necessarily “good” and imbue them with sympathy. With this character, even though she’s a liar, has an assault conviction, and enjoys stealing people’s credit card information, Plaza still manages to have you cheering for her. It reminded me of Uncut Gems a little bit in that way and it’s a testament to her skill as an actor.
It helps to have some really good character writing and that’s what we see here in writer/director John Patton Ford’s debut feature. In between the hard lines that the world around Emily uses to define her, Ford gave her a lot of admirable qualities. She’s driven, hard-working, loyal, and she’s nobody’s doormat. His script is focused on the very nature of that dichotomy and it makes his lead a much more interesting person because she pulls at you from both sides. This was a really impressive introduction for Ford and I would be very curious to see what he could do with a bigger budget heist film.
The role of Youcef was a good one as well and it was nice to see Theo Rossi get that. He has played a good villain in multiple instances, but this performance was more refined and it took advantage of the charisma he has shown in other roles. Youcef is a crook who is hustling the whole way but, even so, his vision beyond that is admirable. Rossi embraces the bad guys he’s played before but does it from an angle of the shy introvert who likes the pretty girl. The trajectory of the relationship between Youcef and Emily is a tad predictable but it gets there in a way that’s sweeter than you’d expect and Rossi and Plaza have great chemistry together.
There are only two other real characters in the film but they are both well-executed supporting pieces. Jonathan Avigdori plays Youcef’s antithetical cousin Khalil with a quiet, menacing touch. He’s a career criminal with no intention of doing anything else and he puts Youcef on notice about Emily right away. The other main supporting character is Emily’s “friend” Liz, played by Megalyn Echikunwoke. Really, she just gaslights Emily and uses her as something of a novelty and it’s through that relationship Emily finds herself and her boundaries. Echikunwoke hits her notes really well because her facade is clearly bullshit and you pivot to not liking her more and more as things go on.
Even though I can’t find an actual “soundtrack” Nathan Halpern, who did another great score for The Watcher, put together some music for this movie that gave me goosebumps when paired with on-screen images. Keep an eye out for his name over the next few years.
That’s it! I liked this one, especially because it’s not pretentious and Ford treats the audience with respect. This was one of the best directorial debuts I have seen this year and I look forward to more from him.
Recommendation: If you like crime dramas, this is a good one done differently. See it for the acting and the superb character writing.
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