Aubrey Plaza, the queen of weaponized deadpan, plays it all-the-way straight in Emily the Criminal, a tough little first feature by writer-director John Patton Ford. The movie has a topical spin—it’s set in the world of crushing student loan debt—but it’s really about the shapeshifting nature of hopes and dreams, and the ways in which the riptides of life can carry us away in unexpected and sometimes alarming directions.
Plaza’s character, Emily, is a young woman who made the mistake of following her own dreams into art school, which has left her $70,000 in debt and with little hope of getting a decent job in the real world. (She also has a minor rap sheet that’s blocking her future like a boulder in the road.) So she now humps orders for a food delivery service, her life going nowhere.
Then, tipped by a colleague, Emily falls in with an improbably charming Lebanese immigrant named Youcef (Theo Rossi, of Sons of Anarchy), who’s part of a criminal enterprise devoted to credit card fraud—stamping stolen names and numbers onto plastic blanks for a squad of “dummy shoppers” to use in scamming retailers out of pricey merchandise. Youcef offers Emily a chance to make a quick $200 doing one of these runs. “You won’t be in danger,” he tells her, “but you will be breaking the law.” Emily is in—and she turns out to be good at this stuff. Then she’s offered a follow-up assignment—a riskier one, but for a lot more money.
Emily has mixed feelings about this new career path, but they’re easily overcome after a dispiriting interview for a legitimate gig at a slick advertising agency. This would have been a perfect berth for an art-school grad, but her hopes were instantly deflated when the agency’s owner (Gina Gershon) explained that the job was intern-level and the pay, zero. (Great resumé-builder, though.) Emily—whose endless loan payments seem to be entirely consumed by ever-mushrooming interest charges—is deeply steamed. “People just keep taking from you,” she fumes, “until you make the goddamn rules yourself.” She decides to start taking this crime career she’s wandered into a little more seriously.
Plaza is not an assertively expressive actor (it’s part of her effectiveness as a comic presence), but she turns Emily into a completely realized character—a woman who’s found no way to exert control over her life until she gets in touch with her inner badass. “We’re serious people!” she shouts at one cowed civilian. “You should be scared of us!”