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Sundance 2022: Emily the Criminal Review

Anyone who says that crime doesn’t pay needs to have a talk with Emily (Aubrey Plaza).

The former art student is drowning in $70,000 worth of student debt, and she can’t land a decent job since there’s a pesky felony conviction on her record. When a co-worker offers a chance to make $200 for one hour of work, she’s not about to say no. Not even if that job requires breaking the law.

Emily joins a crime ring run by an easygoing crook named Youcef (Theo Rossi). It turns out Emily has a knack for committing crimes, and Youcef has a soft spot for Emily. And faster than you can say Miranda rights, Emily gets caught up in a world of charming crooks and fast money. But with real cash finally flowing her way, can Emily leave her new lifestyle behind before she ends up in over her head?

Emily the Criminal’s writer-director John Patton Ford delivers a tense crime-thriller that has the levity of a popcorn flick. It’s a seedy LA crime story, but it’s not as heavy and nihilistic as edgier crime films. As someone who enjoys bleak neo-noirs, I walked away from this screening with a smile plastered on my face. Chalk that up to Plaza’s standout lead performance.

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Plaza kicks all kinds of ass as the film’s no-nonsense protagonist. Even though she’s no pushover when the story begins (Emily tells off the jerk interviewing her for a job in the opening scene) the character goes on a gripping emotional journey as she learns to channel her frustration.

Emily may be a tough-talking chick from New Jersey, but we catch glimpses of the insecurities dwelling beneath her hardened exterior. Plaza deftly reveals flashes of the crushing desperation fuelling Emily’s reckless impulses.

We may disagree with the character’s choices, but we always understand her reasoning. Credit again goes to Plaza for imbuing Emily with enough sly charm to keep viewers rooting for her even when she’s at her most reprehensible.

Theo Rossi excels as a sweetheart of a crook who’s too nice to cut it in his sketchy profession. With his methodical process, Youcef makes an intriguing counterpoint to Emily and her ruthless pragmatism. There are lines Youcef won’t cross, but he lets Emily push him beyond his comfort zone.

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I couldn’t tell if the couple brought out the best in each other or if their dynamic was too toxic to foster a lasting relationship. Rest assured, the film answers this question once the credits roll.

Emily the Criminal squeezes a handful of timely themes into its pulpy narrative. Ford asks viewers to reconsider how we perceive criminals. The movie explores punishment and forgiveness while highlighting the challenges felons face as they move forward with their lives.

Emily the Criminal is a sun-drenched LA crime story sure to please fans of sleazy crime flicks. The film touches on the same themes as early Breaking Bad episodes, asking us to sympathize with a complicated protagonist forced into a dire situation. It’s impossible to watch the movie and not think about what you would do in Emily’s shoes.

Plaza knocks it out of the park as a struggling woman whose been shut out of the American dream. I can’t imagine anyone else making such a challenging task look so effortless. If rooting for this fledgling gangster is a crime, I plead guilty.

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Emily the Criminal premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Head here for more from this year’s festival.



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