Emily The Criminal is a breakthrough for its writer-director, John Patton Ford, but an even bigger one for its star, Aubrey Plaza.

Sundance Film Review: Emily the Criminal


Sundance Film Review: Emily The Criminal
Director: John Patton Ford

Low Spark Films
Premieres: 01.24 at 3:15 p.m. MST

One of my all time favorite Sundance films is the 2012 sci-fi romantic comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, which introduced me to the great Aubrey Plaza, one the funniest comic actresses I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t get a lot of laughs in Emily The Criminal, the new film that she stars in and produces, but her screen presence is as strong as ever.

Emily The Criminal stars Plaza as a woman who struggles with crippling student debt and is unable to get anywhere in the job market thanks to a felony assault charge on her record. Emily finds herself desperate for income and reluctantly takes a gig as a “dummy shopper” buying goods with stolen credit cards that are given to her by disarmingly likable middleman Youcef (Theo Rossi, When The Bough Breaks, Army of the Dead). Despite getting off to a rough start in the game, Emily’s need for money and the brick wall she faces every time she goes to a job interview steer her toward the black market, and also toward Youcef, who becomes more than just her mentor. As Emily goes further into the crimal lifestyle, the stakes continue to rise and her inevitable path is made all too clear.

Writer-director John Patton Ford struggles a bit with pacing, and Emily the Criminal definitely requires a certain degree of patience. But Plaza’s magnetic performance makes it hard to lose interest for too long. Emily’s slow descent into a life of crime is tragic, riveting and strangely exciting. The way of life’s allure is undeniable, yet the moments of real danger are frightening beyonds words. 

Still, Emily’s growing addiction and her resolve to make her lifestyle work plays convincingly, largely because Ford’s script has almost as much to say about the way our society locks people out of second chances as Plaza’s subtle facial expressions do. Rossi is an interesting presence as Youcef, imposing yet vulnerable, and it’s easy to see why Emily is attracted to him as both a business partner and a lover. The supporting cast is excellent, especially Jonathan Avigdori as Youcef’s intimidating partner, Khalil, and Gina Gershon in a memorable cameo appearance as a condescending business woman. 

Emily The Criminal is a breakthrough for its writer-director but an even bigger one for its star, who makes a powerful case against merely type casting her again and again as the funny weird girl that she plays so well. Plaza is already a star, but Emily The Criminal is a reminder that she can still surprise us. As such, her career longevity and ability to anchor any project is not to be taken for granted. To do so would be a real crime. –Patrick Gibbs