Review: Emily The Criminal

Dragon Movie Guy
5 min readAug 25, 2022
Courtesy: Aubrey Plaza as ‘Emily’ — a Millennial facing mounting student loan debt, who chooses a life of crime to pay the money shoe owes/Emily The Criminal/Low Spark Films

Parks And Rec alumni Aubrey Plaza’s spent the last decade becoming an Indie movie megastar, continuing with her latest flick, Emily The Criminal.

From ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’, to ‘Ingrid Goes West’, to ‘Black Bear’; Plaza continues her string of quality, low budget flicks with the story of an art student drowning in debt in ‘Emily The Criminal’.

The Plot — Emily The Criminal

Emily Benetto is BROKE. Student loan debt out the nose, Emily slaves away at a catering job that doesn’t pay enough to get her own place. On top of that, when she interviews for better paying jobs, her past prevents her from being considered.

Emily’s friend Liz, played by Megalyn Echikunwoke, already works in the fashion industry. Emily went to school with Liz, and while Liz already has the dream job with a company she loves; Emily can’t seem to get in the front door.

A co-worker hooks Emily up with a side job that promises $200 for one hour’s worth of work. The catch is that she’ll be breaking the law. Not good for a woman who already has a criminal record.

She completes the job, and asks for more. More money, more risk; and Emily is all in.

Emily’s boss, Youcef, played by Theo Rossi, offers her a high risk job, at great personal risk for herself. The job quickly goes south, but Youcef and Emily bond, and sparks begin to fly.

The two decide that combining work and pleasure is worth the risk, and start a relationship. Youcef dreams of more than just credit card fraud, and Emily’s dreams suddenly seem possible as well. But, what choices will she make next?

The Good — Emily The Criminal

Tension And Tone

Writer/Director John Patton Ford keeps a tense, ground level feel throughout the film.

We follow Emily delivering her catering, getting drinks with Liz, going on job interviews; all with hand held cameras and very few edits.

We see the world according to Emily; feeling the extreme stresses she’s under. Financial stress in the short term with paying rent and debt. Professional stress in the longer term trying to get her dream job, or at least a better job than what she has at the moment. And, personal stress over everyone around her, seeming to be living the dream; except her.

The shaky camera work and longer takes make us feel just how alone Emily feels, and how little agency she has in her life.

Virtually powerless over her own fate due to financial stresses, Ford keeps building Emily’s stress levels throughout the film, as she falls further and further into the crime world.

Even as Emily gains money and feels a sense of personal empowerment, Ford keeps raising the stress with even shakier camera work, and longer takes than before. We see her life choices bringing her more and more stress, even as she thinks she’s solving her financial problems and taking ownership of her life.

As the threats in her life compound, we also start to see the camera zooming in from farther and farther away to show just how isolated and alone she truly feels. This includes getting a box cutter held to her throat as she’s robbed of all she’s worked for.

Keeping The Unexpected, Unexpected

Anyone who loves Indie movies enough to be reading my movie review for ‘Emily The Criminal’ has seen many films with similar premises before.

Where ‘Emily’ stands out is knowing when to play into expectations, and knowing when to play against them. By keeping tensions high throughout and the point of view on the ground level, we follow Emily’s decisions as she makes them.

Some decisions feel right, others feel like the opposite of what she’s trying to do. But, due to the level of stress, we begin to see just how flawed Emily’s decision making has become, even as she THINKS she’s taking agency over her own destiny.

Others around her feed off Emily’s chaotic decisions, making unexpected decisions, too. Youcef makes an unexpected business decision, Liz makes an unexpected personal decision, and even Alice, played by Gina Gershon, keeps the audience guessing in a brief cameo appearance.

Without going into spoilery territory, you can’t quite say to ‘expect the unexpected’, but rather to ‘NOT expect when to know when the unexpected or expected will happen.’ Not as catchy, but it makes my point without giving anything away.

The Review — Emily The Criminal

The title of the film says it all. ‘Emily, The Criminal’.

The film follows the life choices Emily makes, even if the choices she has to make aren’t much of a ‘choice’, at all.

Where ‘Criminal’ shines though is keeping the focus on Emily, and feeling like the choice has yet to be made, even if she is leaning in a certain direction. You never quite know where the story is headed next, until the very end. Even when the dye appears to have been cast a long time ago.

Where Emily The Criminal succeeds further is exploring larger societal issues without feeling like you’re being preached at or preached with. This film keeps the story focused on Emily in the here and now; even if the financial pressures she faces affect millions of twenty-somethings across the country.

No preaching, no advocating. Just focusing on the decisions made by one woman stuck in a bad situation, not entirely of her own making.

Aubrey Plaza shines in typical ‘Aubrey Plaza’ fashion; adding an uncomfortable strength and resilience, despite lacking confidence. In other words, a film tailor made for Aubrey Plaza’s skill set as an actress.

What we get is an interesting character exploration, given all the autonomy and agency we all get in our own decision making, even if we don’t always feel like we have a real ‘choice.’

Emily The Criminal keeps the tension and stress at a low boil for the length of the film. Aubrey Plaza delivers a satisfying character study dealing with an all too common issue millions of Americans face on a daily basis.

Worth watching in theaters. The filmmaking is rock solid, and the shaky camera work will make you feel Emily’s uncomfortable plight even more keenly on the big screen. Three and a half stars.

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Dragon Movie Guy

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