This article originally appeared on The Film Experience
Comedic actors turning to serious drama is nothing new, but the sardonic stylings of Aubrey Plaza are perfectly utilized in the grim Sundance offering Emily the Criminal, the feature film debut from John Patrick Ford.
Plaza stars as the titular Emily, a young woman just trying to get a reputable job to pay off her ever-rising student loan debt. Unfortunately, she has a few red marks on her background check that scares off most employers. Working as a caterer-waitress, the $400 payment she makes on her loans doesn’t touch her principle balance. Fortune smiles upon Emily as a co-worker introduces her to the world of being a dummy shoper – someone who buys goods with stolen credit card numbers.
The initial meeting with her liason Youcef (Theo Rossi) makes it seem pretty straightforward. She takes a fake ID and a card, buys a TV, wheels it out, and she gets $200 cash. That’s all there is to it, until Youcef asks her to come back tomorrow for an opportunty for $2,000. That’s all it takes for Emily to fall into the void of danger and cash. Soon enough, she wants to start working more independently, making more and more money but taking greater chances. As the stakes rise, Nathan Halpern’s expressive score beats like a ticking clock. The tensions are elevated, along with the rewards.
Plaza might seem ill-suited for an almost completely serious role, but she perfectly suits the bubbling anger and repressed energy needed for Emily. She is stuck in a no-win situation with her loans, but never pities or decries her station. She is forward energy and momentum. Whenever she gets backed into a corner, she lashes out. It’s a blistering performance. Rossi plays a nice compliment to Plaza, and their chemistry is a constantly shifting dynamic that propels the film.
The film is an ode to how quickly you can go to the dark side if you are limited in your options, not to mention the criminal practices of student loans. Between Plaza and the crackling energy of the script, it’s nice to get some dark, but high-minded adult fare.