'Emily the Criminal' Review: Aubrey Plaza and Theo Rossi Shine in Tight Crime Thriller

So many crime dramas are firmly lodged in the past. But writer-director John Patton Ford's debut film, Emily the Criminal, shrugs this off and squarely focuses on 2022 and the struggles financially-strapped Millennials face. Headlined by an incredible performance by Aubrey Plaza, who also produced the film, Emily the Criminal is a tight, tense drama. This is a work of fiction, but there are enough real challenges in Emily's story that her turn from struggling artist to criminal doesn't seem that far off from reality.

Plaza stars as Emily Benetto, a New Jersey native living in Los Angeles and struggling to pay her mounting student loan debt with her terrible job as a food delivery worker. She has tried desperately to get another job, but a felony assault conviction on her record makes it tough to get anything that pays well. One day, a co-worker hands her the number of a group running credit card scams that could help her earn some quick cash. She meets the group's leader, Youcef (Theo Rossi), and soon Emily learns she's good at this.

Meanwhile, Emily's high school friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is also trying to help Emily get a job, or at least pretend to. The duality provides a running thread throughout that the film hits home and gives Emily a grounded motivation to turn to crime. Her growing frustrations with Liz's promises and inaction build to an incredible crescendo during an interview scene with Liz's boss Alice, played to perfection by Gina Gershon. In her only scene, Gershon and Plaza fire on all cylinders after Alice reveals that the opportunity Liz promised will not help her. It's a feeling so many know too well. Emily's relationship with Liz counterbalances her world with Youcef. The criminal underworld doesn't look so bad when you get nothing from a real job. 

Plaza, who also co-produces the film, gives her latest great performance. In Emily the Criminal, she showcases an incredible skill at turning her personality on a dime, from putting on a charm offensive to snapping into full-on criminal mode. Every bit of acting, from the opening scene on, cements Emily as a well-rounded character with an inner conflict that's reflected on the audience that is already on their toes by Ford's script. Rossi's performance is also wonderful, creating a character that makes it easy to forget that Youcef is still a criminal.

Ford gets his career off to a promising start here. His script is economical and wrangles tension from even the most mundane activities. Anyone who has used a debit or credit card to pay with something and just hopes it works will understand how that gets even tenser if the card is fake. His dialogue presents all the backstory we ever need for these characters. Ford and editor Harrison Atkins keep the movie well-paced, slowing things down for parties and dinners and speeding things up for the action. The Los Angeles of this movie is surprisingly cool, with cinematographer Jeff Bierman ripping out a page from Michael Mann's book. 

Emily the Criminal is a wonderfully tight thriller, carried by Plaza's lead performance. The Safety Not Guaranteed actress continues to find the perfect material for her talents. The addition of Rossi is great, too, and proves Ford couldn't have scored a better team to bring his first produced script to life if he tried. It speaks to today's challenges for people in their 30s who have seen their dreams get chewed out by the system. Maybe credit card fraud isn't the best way to respond to that, but we can't always be picky about how we use our creativity.