By Vanessa Zimmer
If you haven’t seen Aubrey Plaza since she played the bored and snarky April Ludgate in television’s Parks and Recreation — surprise!
In the lead role of the tense thriller Emily the Criminal — written and directed by John Patton Ford and premiering Monday at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival — Plaza plays a vulnerable young woman with a tough core. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In any case, she projects a hefty amount of nerviness, with just a bit of nerves.
Emily is a talented artist who must stoop to contract work delivering food while her friend from art school, Liz, makes 11-day work trips to Portugal for photo shoots. In part because of a relatively minor criminal record, Emily is unable to find full-time work that will allow her to pay off a student debt that has grown to $70,000 (even though she had to abandon school before graduating).
Emily essentially stumbles onto a dummy shopping network in Los Angeles, where she can make $200 or more for an hour’s work buying flat-screen TVs and the like with fake credit cards and IDs provided by a middleman. The middleman, of course, reaps high dollars from their resale.
The pace of the film is deliberately relentless, perhaps 75% of the action captured with a handheld camera, said director of photography Jeff Bierman in the post-premiere Q&A — as Emily charges “full-octane” through her difficulties.
“You feel like you’re walking with Emily through every part of it,” said Theo Rossi, who plays that sympathetic middleman and love interest. He appreciates working opposite Plaza: “She goes for it through every take.”
Emily tries to walk away from dummy shopping once, twice, three times, while attempting to land a job that operates within the law. But she is frustrated at every turn, growing harder, angrier, and more desperate. Plaza so genuinely inhabits this complex Emily that even as Emily sinks deeper and deeper into a world of crime and violence, we’re rooting for her all the way.