The only crime of “Emily the Criminal,” a film released in the U.S. on Aug. 12 that gained traction when Netflix began streaming it on Dec. 7, is leaving viewers wanting more of the riveting feeling it delivers.
Aubrey Plaza stars as the titular role in this crime thriller. Though an aspiring artist at heart, Emily works as a deliverer for a food catering company. It’s a job that does little to help pay off her $70,000 student loan debt. Turned away from prospective employers due to past felonies, she finds herself trying out her luck as a “dummy shopper,” a gig her co-worker promises will make her quick money.
But quick does not equate to easy or even moral in this case. Emily finds the job actually consists of credit card fraud where she must purchase expensive items using stolen payment information. Desperation and burdensome financial obligations drive her to stick with it, becoming increasingly involved in illegal activity despite the danger that comes along with it. What results is a nail-biting series of incidents.
The most daunting part of this film is unfortunately the real-to-life issue it concerns itself with. Emily, though a fictional character, represents the very real 42.8 million borrowers plagued by student loan debt in the United States. She embodies the vicious cycle debt often presents, as in one scene she admits to not finishing college because of the pressing need to work and pay back loans, stopping her from earning the degree that may have increased her chances of finding the well-paying career she so desperately seeks. And despite today’s generation emphasizing that a “traditional route” of higher education is not necessarily needed to find monetary success, the film does an excellent job of showing that society has yet to fully adapt to that thinking.
Adding to the nerve-inducing foundation of the story is Plaza’s deadpan delivery that somehow gives nothing and everything all at once. Just as she does in most of her roles, she remains chiefly impassive in expression and tone, but when a scene calls for it, she very naturally carries out a burdened, vengeful young woman that has more grit and gall than meets the eye.
In the same vein is Youcef (Theo Rossi), Emily’s mentor in credit card fraud. Not surprisingly, the writers took the opportunity to turn this charismatic leader into the protagonist’s love interest. But the balance of genres is just right and doesn’t cheapen the movie in the slightest. Enough romance is used only to pleasantly break up the monotony of the film’s mood and further Emily’s plunge into peril, moving the action and suspense of the story along.
In fact, the consistency of the movie is what makes it so easy to sit through. It contains no lapses in time or randomly inserted plotlines that make it difficult to follow, contrary to what a film of this premise might be expected to do. Viewers can rely on mainly the same locations being returned to, the same few characters remaining central to the script’s advancement and a pretty straightforward progression.
What helps keep the movie entertaining aside from its accessibility and Bonnie-and-Clyde-like duo is many of the film’s transitions. Audio is more than once cleverly used to move from one scene to another, whether it be the abrupt yip of a dog barking or the clank of the machine Emily and Youcef use to create fake credit cards. It’s difficult to articulate but something viewers must see, or hear, rather, in order to understand how big of a difference something simple like audio transitions can make in creating a polished film and pleasurable viewing experience.
“Emily the Criminal” is just that – a cohesive, gripping watch that makes its hour-and-a-half runtime pass quickly. Its only offense is creating endings for its characters that will certainly leave viewers itching for more. But that’s a better problem to have and possibly even a reason why this film should make it onto people’s watchlist.