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Sundance 2022: ‘Emily the Criminal’ puts allures, dangers of crime on sharp display

Aubrey Plaza stars as the titular character in “Emily the Criminal,” which debuted in the Premieres category of Sundance Film Festival. The film chronicles her journey into the world of crime as she delves into credit card fraud. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

"Emily the Criminal"

Directed by John Patton Ford

Low Spark Films

Jan. 24

By Vivian Xu

Jan. 28, 2022 7:32 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 30 at 10:29 p.m.

Credit card fraud is a cruel mistress – and Emily is her latest victim.

In director and screenwriter John Patton Ford’s feature, “Emily the Criminal,” fierce millennial Emily (Aubrey Plaza) spirals into an elaborate scheme of credit card fraud in search of quick cash. The crime thriller screened in the Premieres category at the Sundance Film Festival and follows Emily as she brushes shoulders with the dark underbelly of crime along the way. Ford said he chose Los Angeles as the narrative’s location to complement the scrappy nature of its characters.

“There’s a ragged energy to LA,” Ford said. “No one moves to LA for the same reason that someone might move to Cleveland. People come here, and no matter who they are, no matter what they’re doing, you can almost always assume they really (want) something. They (want) something greater than what they could get wherever they were (from).”

A New Jersey native, Emily’s motivations for moving to Los Angeles are vague, but her criminal record leaves her stuck working for a catering company rather than her desired job in a creative or artistic field. The corresponding low wages do not do much to alleviate her student loans, which serve as a weight of fear and anxiety on her shoulders, Ford said.

After a co-worker introduces her to serving as the grunt work in a credit card fraud operation, Emily is rapidly thrust into the quick-paced world of crime. Her crime boss turned conspirator Youcef (Theo Rossi) teaches her the basics of credit card fraud before the two begin running their own schemes, Rossi said.

“I know that life a little, and I remember that life a little,” Rossi said. “No criminal ever wants to be a criminal. There’s always a means to an end.”

With Emily’s reason for diving into the world of crime made clear, Ford said he strived to make her decisions, such as tasering and stabbing those who have wronged her, appear logical and understandable to the audience. While Emily expediently transitions from an ordinary person to stuffing hundred dollar bills in her closet safe, Ford said his dynamic screenwriting contrasts the formulaic nature of thrillers.

“The trick with writing a thriller is that very often, the mechanics of it are just so concrete,” Ford said. “You know that you need to have certain turning points at certain times. Very often, you can end up with a paint by numbers situation, where you’re forcing characters to do things that no one would do, but you know damn well that something has to happen on page 23.”

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)
Director John Patton Ford said his screenwriting tried to work within the typical thriller structure while ensuring Emily’s choices were relatable and logical to audiences. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Interrupting the pattern of crime is Emily’s job interview with Alice (Gina Gershon), an executive in the creative arts, and though she is offered the lucrative but unpaid position, she flippantly reprimands Alice for refusing to pay her before walking out the door. Plaza said Alice serves as Emily’s foil, and their interaction is akin to a reality check – though Emily is provided with a way out from her credit fraud scheme, she purposefully rejects it in favor of continuing down her current path.

“Alice represents the only character that really stands up to Emily, even though she’s dealing with all these criminals,” Plaza said. “They’re both (similar), but you see how different her life has gone, and you see Emily clock that, like, ‘Oh, wow, I could end up like her.’ But in my head, Emily is a boss – she’s becoming a boss – but not the kind of boss that Alice has become.”

On a grander scheme, the film comments on the sharp contrast between simple sustenance to get by and actually fulfilling one’s dreams and interests. Emily invests her time in criminal activity and her catering job with the ultimate intention of creating art, while Youcef runs his fraud schemes with the goal of renovating a home for his mother.

Pulling from his family members who were born into blue-collar families but had larger aspirations, Rossi said he infused his familial upbringing into the movie’s depiction of the contrast between reality and ambition. Though the film’s fantastical thriller plot may be somewhat unrelatable, Rossi said the difference between someone’s dream and their means to an end is universal.

“A lot of my friends and cousins and people I know are really great at certain things but aren’t necessarily doing them,” Rossi said. “They’re doing other things just to get by, like many people – most people on this planet have something else in them.”

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Vivian Xu | Daily Bruin senior staff
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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