If Emily the Criminal had been made in the 1970s, it might have been an angry drama starring Jane Fonda. If it had been made in the ’80s, it would have been a feelgood comedy starring Dolly Parton. And here we are in 2022, where it lands with its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival as a taut, gripping but nevertheless damning portrait of how much ground has been lost in the last 40 years. The setting is America, but the subject is universal: the growth of wage slavery and, in particular, the glass ceiling that exists for people, women in particular, on low income.
The title sounds like an edgy comedy, and Aubrey Plaza is no stranger to those, which might be the Trojan horse subterfuge director John Patton Ford is using. Like this year’s U.S. Competition entry Emergency, it’s a genre film that actively deconstructs its genre, promising a risqué romp—a little bit like 2019’s stripper-con thriller Hustlers, which went surprisingly far then stopped disappointingly short to accommodate its mainstream audience—but quickly does a bait-and-switch to show the reality of how things would really go down if a woman tried to get by in a (bad) man’s world.
Plaza plays Emily Benetto, a young woman struggling to make a living. The opening is brutal; she has a job interview where she’s asked about any prior bad behavior or convictions, after being assured that the company hasn’t done a background check. So she lies—but of course the company has. The kicker is that Emily doesn’t even want the job; she’s a talented artist who dropped out of college because she couldn’t pay the spiraling fees, which are now at $70,000.
Storming out, she encounters a workmate at the catering company she works for: in exchange for her taking his shift, he tells her of a mysterious company that recruits “dummy shoppers.” Could you knowingly pay for luxury goods with a stolen credit card? That’s one of the many moral questions the film poses, and one that Emily breezes. From there, she’s all in, becoming partners with Youcef (Theo Rossi), who teaches her the basics of credit-card fraud and identity theft.
Emily is a natural, and though Ford’s film is never as flashy as Michael Mann’s Thief or Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, both of which must surely be references for this city noir, it does elicit the same amphetamine rush, notably in a scene in which Emily takes ownership of a hot car. The difference between this and those two films, however, is there is no cool male hero and, though she is cool in her own right, Plaza lets her vulnerability show. In fact, she gets beaten up, and that certainly isn’t cool. But while writer-director Ford doesn’t insult us with clichés about kick-ass heroines, he does give us a deceptively rich script that explains where Emily has come to—and where she will go, ensuring a satisfying ending that, while dark, doesn’t feel too sugar-coated.
In terms of the film’s box office future, Emily’s middle-classness might be divisive. A running theme is Emily’s shallow best friend, who keeps offering her media jobs and then snatching them back since she doesn’t actually have any power (uncoincidentally, that friend is a person of color). Will mainstream audiences care about the story a woman who wants to draw for a living? Perhaps not. But perhaps they will identify with the stresses of the gig economy, and it’s no accident that the story is bookended by job interviews.
Questioned on her attitude by the fabulously snooty Gina Gershon, who’s expecting her to take an unpaid internship, Emily speaks for a lot of job-seekers when she says, “If you want to tell me what to do, put me on the f*cking payroll.”