By Marc S. Sanders

Aubrey Plaza becomes Emily The Criminal, a woman down on her luck with mounting debts, who resorts to credit card fraud with some low level hoods in the Los Angeles underground in order to make ends meet. 

This movie popped out at me while searching through Netflix.  It’s a little over a brisk ninety minutes, made on a shoestring budget, but it has twice the intelligence of whatever crumb of a story Avatar: The Way Of Water has with the two billion dollars spent to make big screen exhausting blue junk.  Goes back to what I always say. If you have an intelligent script, the movie will more than likely be worth watching.  Emily The Criminal is worth watching.

Normally, I don’t look at the running time of a movie before seeing it.  However, this happened to catch my eye in the screen summary just as I was about to hit play.  It’s an hour and 37 minutes.  Once the movie starts, there is a lot piled on to Emily.  First her excessive bills are established. She also has a proclivity for flying off the handle when she’s questioned about her prior arrests for assault and DUI.  Then, she is recruited with a group of others to take a fake credit card and driver’s license into a store and buy a flat screen TV.  A fast two hundred dollars is made.  The ringleader behind this scam is a guy named Youcef (Theo Rossi) who entices Emily with a more complex transaction the next day that’ll earn her two grand.  That works out, but frightening complications intersect.  Still, the cash was better, quicker, and easier to come by than her day job delivering UBER meals.  Eventually, Youcef and Emily connect with one another and she’s learning the tricks to manufacturing the cards and pulling off her own scams.  She’s good at it but not perfect, and when she trips up, a rift in trust between Youcef and his partner comes into play.  Emily is compelled to protect Youcef.

On the side, Emily also reunites with a high school friend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) who offers a line on a professional day job that could use her talents for graphic art.  Emily’s personality might not be suitable for that environment though, and the criminal underworld seems more attractive, despite the danger and risks involved.

I was never looking at my watch but as the movie progressed, I knew I had covered a lot of mileage and there still seemed to be a lot of road left to travel.  My expectations were that some questions will be left unanswered as the ending is approaching.  The cops have yet to make an appearance.  Will Emily be able to go legitimate, or does she even want to?  Most importantly, will her new friend Youcef survive his strained relationship with his business partner?  Thankfully, everything does conclude satisfyingly, and the ending ties together believably, even if there are a few conveniences that enter the frame.

I’m not familiar with Aubrey Plaza’s work prior to this film.  (I’m one of the few who didn’t get into her TV show Parks & Recreation.  My colleague Miguel refuses to let me live that down.)  However, she’s a good actor with lots of range, going from quick bursts of anger to showing mental toughness on screen against some scary people she encounters.  When she meets with a criminal in an empty parking lot who is twice her size and says a flat screen is $600, but the thug insists he’s taking it for $300, I was wondering how she’s going to get out of this one.  Plaza shows her character’s inexperience with such entanglements, but what opportunity will rescue her?  An even scarier episode happens later when Emily is getting robbed.  Plaza is sensational in both scenes.  First time writer/director John Patton Ford sets up these acts, but Aubrey Plaza always delivers it believably.  She’s brash, tough, and smart.

Ford’s film and script work because it doesn’t get too grand with itself.  The criminal world does not open itself up to the highest and wealthiest on the food chain.  Ford was smart to keep the complications of his story within this low-level demographic of delinquent offenders.  Other films would have taken the new student who quickly capitalizes over to the highest mansion on the highest mountain to where the kingpin of everything sits in his hot tub throne on the thirtieth floor overlooking a city.  Ford’s script is wise not to go beyond its reach and mire itself in flashy bloodbath violence.  Also, the window of time from when Emily first dabbles in this shady activity toward the film’s conclusion and epilogue is succinct, not spanning years or decades.  The contained routes that Ford takes with his debut film allow the misdeeds and outcomes to be convincing.

I especially took great pleasure with how the ending of Emily The Criminal circles back on itself to the beginning.  That tells me that John Patton Ford thought this storyline and his protagonist all the way through with good insight. 

Emily The Criminal is an under the radar film to look out for.

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