Emily the Criminal
Low Spark Films, 2022
John Patton Ford
📷 : Used with permission, Netflix
Many of you reading this have probably had the experience of knowing someone for a decent amount of time, then being blindsided by information about them that changes your perspective. You might have gone to karaoke with them and found out they sing like Whitney Houston. Maybe they cooked you a Gordon Ramsay-caliber meal. Or in a darker vein, maybe they told you about their past misdeeds. Depending on the severity, it could influence your trust level or even end your relationship entirely. John Patton Ford’s newest work, Emily the Criminal, presents a protagonist with a cloudy history who falls back on her old behavior in a moment of desperation.
Starring Aubrey Plaza (White Lotus, Parks and Rec), Emily the Criminal’s title character has a relatable struggle: she’s broke and saddled with student loan debt. Her day job as a food runner does not pay her nearly enough for financial security, leaving her on the verge of moving from California back to New Jersey. While Emily could find a better job, one big caveat stands in her way: she has a criminal record. In fact, the movie opens with her lying about it in the midst of a job interview. Though not explicitly stated, her past interferes with any chance she has at financial stability. One day, her co-worker gives her a lead to a one-off gig for some quick cash. As it turns out, the gig in question is credit card fraud. Emily pursues the lead, completes the mission and is offered the chance at another quick score. She is initially reluctant, but she finds success and continues when her problem of gaining a legitimate income source continues. However, the missions escalate into more and more dangerous territory.
The majority of moviegoers probably do not lend much credence to the titles of the movies they watch. We are mainly hooked in by trailers, lead actors, directors, and brand familiarity (*cough* Marvel *cough*). For this particular indie piece, the title gives the audience an interesting dilemma in how they perceive Emily. Her struggle is all too common, and her veneer seems innocent enough. Since Emily is the character we follow for the entirety of the film, it is tempting to give her the benefit of the doubt on her past transgressions, vague as she is about them. After all, no one wants to dwell on or be forever judged by their lowest moments.
In spite of our initial leniency, every story worth its salt puts their characters in situations that reveal to us who they really are. As the plot progresses, Emily finds herself (and places herself) in volatile circumstances. The film suggests that she is not simply a docile character struggling to survive, but rather, she has her own demons. Though student loan debt is practically a rite-of-passage for any former student, most people would not engage in theft, violence and deception as the means for dealing with it. Emily is sometimes on the receiving end of the violence but delves out her share as well.
Whether intentionally or not, the film calls attention to how much we profile people. Emily does not have the hardened exterior we associate with a felon. She does not scowl at people or snap at the first provocation. She does not curse like a sailor or carry a firearm. Her criminal activity put in context seems relatively victimless, until it’s not. A moment emblematic of her character occurs when she commits her first theft and leaves the store wearing a hat that she absent-mindedly took off the shelf. The store security guard, unaware of her more serious ongoing crime, confronts her about it in the parking lot, to which she willingly hands the hat back and apologizes. Her disarming presence and relatable need make her appear much more well-intentioned than she actually is.
Emily the Criminal and its protagonist bring to mind the 2014 film Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Louis, the main character, is ambitious and desperate for work. While it is clear from the start that Louis is not exactly a boy scout, he largely appears to possess an entrepreneurial spirit, trying to excel in a career that he has carved out for himself. He gradually becomes more controlling and manipulative, crossing the line further and further. Emily, on the other hand, just wants to be free of debt and maintain her current living situation. Nonetheless, in both films and other crime dramas as well, the characters dipping their toes in the pool of illegal activity always end up doing a full-fledged cannonball.