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Sundance Review: In “Emily the Criminal,” Aubrey Plaza Rocks the System

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 24th, 2022

John Patton Ford, director of EMILY THE CRIMINAL, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Martim Vian.

Emily the Criminal (John Patton Ford, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars. 

Another in a series of patented misfit roles from Aubrey Plaza (Black Bear), Emily may look familiar but is sui generis, steel born of hardship just below the seemingly placid exterior. We see flashes of it right away, in an opening job interview where the camera stays on her, in close-up, as a prospective employer queries her about the police record from the background check he ran. She lies, which then makes him ask more pointed questions, making her get up in a fury and leave. She’s no pushover. But just how far will she go? That is the question posed by John Patton Ford’s debut feature, Emily the Criminal. And though we do see what’s coming, there are still welcome surprises in store.

From that first scene, punctuated by Emily’s outraged cry about being $70,000 in debt from college, we know that money matters. So we’re not surprised when she accepts an offer, casually passed on to her by a colleague at the catering company where she works, to earn a quick $200. When she shows up at the proper time and place, she discovers two men with a stack of credit cards printed from stolen numbers, with a scheme called “dummy-shopping.” All the would-be earners need do is go into the nearby big-box store, buy a TV with the card, and then deliver to their recruiters. Easy as pie.

But of course, once one starts, there’s always the temptation to keep on going, especially when the job pickings are slim. Not even Emily’s art-school friend, Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke, An Actor Prepares), is able to help, which leaves our determined protagonist with nowhere to go but back to the dummy-shoppers. The main one, Youcef (Theo Rossi, Vault), takes an interest in Emily when the next gig, a major step above televisions, goes slightly awry. One thing leads to another, and soon Emily is setting up shop on her own. If it will get her out of debt faster, why not?

Aubrey Plaza appears in EMILY THE CRIMINAL, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Low Spark Films.

There would be no drama without conflict, and the best-laid plans still have flaws. As Emily and Youcef grow closer, however, they draw comfort from each other’s dreams, hers to paint and his to own a condo building. Whether or not they can achieve these fantasies forms the spine of the film. Or not, for there’s a very big wrench waiting to screw up the works.

As a thriller, Emily the Criminal proves thoroughly engaging, even if a few scenes feel overly contrived. As a showcase for Plaza’s talents as an actor, the movie is almost perfect. The supporting ensemble is strong, even if not all performances are created equal. There are also some excellent meditations on the ruthlessness of the gig economy and the exploitation of unpaid internships. Who is the real criminal? OK, it may well be Emily, but context is everything.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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