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Aubrey Plaza plays a fraudster in the mostly engrossing 'Emily the Criminal'

Audrey Plaza plays a an art-school dropout who resorts to credit card fraud in <em>Emily the Criminal. </em>
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Audrey Plaza plays a an art-school dropout who resorts to credit card fraud in Emily the Criminal.

For a while now, it's seemed as if there's no role too absurd or outrageous for Aubrey Plaza to play: an Instagram stalker in Ingrid Goes West, a naughty nun in The Little Hours, a flesh-eating zombie in Life After Beth.

The character she plays in Emily the Criminal — an art-school dropout who masters the art of credit-card fraud — sounds almost low-key by comparison. But if this is one of Plaza's more straightforward dramatic performances, absent of her usual deadpan-comic touches, it's also one of her strongest. She holds us at nearly every moment of this engrossing Los Angeles noir, about a woman whose luck ran out long ago, and who decides to seize control of her life and livelihood.

Emily is technically already a criminal when we meet her: She has an aggravated-assault conviction on her record that's made it hard for her to find steady work, let alone pay off her $70,000 in student loans. She barely gets by making food deliveries and sharing a crowded L.A. apartment with two roommates. Plaza plays the character with an outsider's toughness — Emily grew up in New Jersey, and we can hear it in her accent — but also the shrewdness of someone who knows when to fight back and when to go with the flow.

That talent suits her well when a lucrative but illegal opportunity comes her way. Her task is to buy some pricey electronic equipment using a phony credit card, then slip out before the theft is detected. The merchandise gets picked up and resold, and Emily gets paid $200 — not bad for an hour's work. It's supposed to be just a one-time thing, but Emily is soon hooked and coming back for more.

The man who oversees this operation and takes her under his wing is Youcef, a Lebanese immigrant played by the charismatic Theo Rossi, from shows like Sons of Anarchy and Luke Cage. Youcef realizes that Emily makes a pretty good crook, partly because few people suspect her of being one. The movie tacitly acknowledges the racist and sexist assumptions that would give a white woman an advantage in this line of work. But it also keys us into Emily's feelings of fear, anxiety and exhilaration as she starts taking on bigger, higher-stakes jobs. Soon she's got her own little racket, printing the credit cards and arranging the sales herself.

As the work gets more dangerous, Emily realizes she's going to need more than the pepper spray in her purse to defend herself. The writer-director John Patton Ford, making a solid feature debut, skillfully ratchets up the tension at key moments, and Plaza is both vulnerable and fierce as a woman having to figure out her own fight-or-flight responses in real time.

One botched early job leads to a car chase that's all the more harrowing for being so realistically staged. Youcef guides Emily through every step of her enterprise, and Plaza and Rossi's chemistry deepens as their characters' initially combative relationship gives way to romantic sparks. Naturally, their emotional bond will complicate their business dealings in all sorts of ways, some more believable than others.

As things start to unravel, the movie's third-act plotting gets a little too ragged for its own good. But if Emily the Criminal isn't always successful as a genre exercise, it's thoroughly gripping as a portrait of a woman always operating in survival mode. It's telling that even with her new source of income, Emily doesn't take anything for granted and never stops working every angle. She keeps trying to land an interview at an upscale ad agency, where interns are expected to work full-time for free. She keeps her food delivery job, even though the pay is lousy and the benefits nonexistent. What millions of American workers endure day in and day out, the movie suggests, is no less exploitative than any of Emily's illegal activities. The movie may be called Emily the Criminal, but it reserves its harshest indictment for the society that made her what she is.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: August 17, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this story Aubrey Plaza's name was misspelled in a caption as Audrey.
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.