Emily the Criminal [Sundance Film Festival Review]

Now that she's firmly established as one of the funniest people on the planet, Aubrey Plaza is out to show everyone that she can do drama just as well. Her work in 2020's Black Bear was revelatory. Now she dazzles again in the thriller Emily the Criminal, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Erasing all trace of the snarky comic persona she's perfected, Plaza takes on the role of a young woman who gets involved in crime, only to discover that she kind of likes it.

Emily is saddled with college debt. A couple of past arrests make it difficult to get a good job, as does her impatience with potential employers asking about them. She scrapes by working for a catering business. A co-worker provides a tip on how to make $200 fast. Emily shows up at a location one day where a guy named Yusuf (Theo Rossi) explains the gig. Armed with stolen credit card information, she is to go into an electronics store and purchase a TV, which he will then sell to someone else. That goes okay, so Yusuf invites her back the next day for a bigger scam. Before long, Emily is fully participating in all kinds of credit card fraud. Dangers present themselves on occasion, but she's making money hand over fist.

The effective thing about Emily the Criminal is how Plaza makes her character's transition into this world credible. From the first scene, where she tells off a job interviewer, we can see that there's a rebellious streak inside of her. When financial desperation and a chance to make easy money intersect, that natural sense of defiance comes out. It's as if Emily turns to credit card fraud as a great big “screw you” to the conventional work world that won't give her a decent shot.

Plaza has strong chemistry with Rossi, who also excels as her mentor and eventual romantic interest. He gives Yusuf a good-guy side that helps us understand why Emily is drawn to him, even as he educates her in the art of breaking the law. In one of the movie's most harrowing scenes, she violates an instruction he previously gave her, specifically to never have a buyer come to her apartment for a transaction. It almost ends in catastrophe. The sequence reflects on both of them – her for a certain impulsivity she needs to reign in, him for the understanding of how rigidly the enterprise needs to be run. Such tension is achieved because the performances give the story real authenticity.

Writer/director John Patton Ford, making his feature debut, puts his two terrific leads in a plot that depicts the day-to-day proceedings of the operation with riveting detail. He also makes sure that the character study elements are just as front and center. Emily the Criminal is a shrewd portrait of a lost soul searching for meaning and finding it in an illicit situation. This is one of the best films to come out of Sundance this year.

out of four

Emily the Criminal is rated R for language, some violence, and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.