Known for the deadpan hilarity she brings to off-beat comedies like Life After Beth (2014) and Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), Aubrey Plaza is at her badass best in Emily the Criminal (2022), the newest film from writer-director John Patton Ford. Along with this being a real gem in Plaza’s body of work (one of the first times we see her stoic acting approach used to its darkest potential) the film itself is smartly done and provides a uniquely raw exploration of crime, gender and America’s student loan crisis.
Emily is in debt: over $70,000 of it—mostly from college and court-fees—and because she has a felony record, it’s impossible for her to get a well-paying job. Brought to life by Plaza’s simmering fury, we see this character’s options dwindle one by one until she’s left with no choice but to slide farther and farther into a life of crime. Along with the light it shines on the almost-two-trillion dollars’ worth of student loans currently plaguing millions of Americans, Emily’s predicament also highlights the plight of those who’ve been convicted of a felony. The film accomplishes this by making viewers take the perspective of society’s most forgotten citizens. Often times, this is done via hand-held cameras following Emily through bustling urban landscapes, setting a subjective tone, as if we were right next to her, and establishing a frenetic pace that makes our world feel unstable, vulnerable, somewhat paranoid, as Emily seems to feel in certain moments, such as the first scene. Naturalistic lighting grounds audiences in a sense of place, firmly placing us beside Emily as she races between a food delivery job and her increasingly-complex schemes for quick cash, a balance that’s dangerous and eventually puts her life at risk.
The specter of patriarchal violence is present throughout the film, from Emily’s boss who’s always threatening her job to the men threatening her physical well-being as her crimes become more enmeshed with the criminal underworld. Despite this, don’t view this movie as a mere meditation on female pain. Instead of exploiting Plaza’s character, Ford constantly shows her actively standing up to these authoritative figures (and winning), and does so without patronizing audiences with clichés about ‘kickass heroines.’ Instead of that, or turning it into what many might call ‘trauma-porn,’ what Ford gives us is instead a well-balanced, nuanced portrait of class-based resistance to patriarchy, and a commentary on the dangers of ambition in capitalist society. Maybe that’s what makes the ending so satisfying, the way it shows how the only way to beat the system is to abandon it.
It’s a fast-paced thriller jam-packed with social commentary that couldn’t be timelier as Biden’s cancellation of only $10,000 in student debt has received criticisms for not going far enough. In a world where education is held as a kind of ransom over the heads of tens of millions of people and a country with only 4.2% of the world’s population houses over 20% of its prisoners, Emily the Criminal leaves us with a question that’s simple but important: who are the real criminals here? Watch it in theaters while you can!
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