Emily (Aubrey Plaza) turns to crime in "Emily the Criminal." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Emily the Criminal, which premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival, is a working class heist movie for the modern workplace.
Movies from Blue Collar to Set It Off showed regular people turn to crime when their above board jobs let them down. Emily the Criminal updates that theme effectively in a tense thriller.
Emily (Aubrey Plaza) works as a food deliverer to pay off her $70,000 student debt. She can't land a higher-paying job because of an aggravated assault conviction. When a co-worker recommends her to be a dummy shopper, Emily seizes the opportunity for quick cash.
Dummy shopping is buying expensive items with fake credit cards and reselling the item for cash. The crime ring provides the fake IDs for the credit cards. All Emily has to do is make the purchase.
Apparently, a big box store doesn't notice several people loading their newly purchased TVs into the same van, but criminals have gotten away with stranger things.
When Emily succeeds, her boss, Youcef (Theo Rossi), offers her a higher-paying and riskier job. The second job has a ticking clock of eight minutes, and Emily comes right up against minute eight in a tense sequence.
The jobs get more and more dangerous. Emily must deal with shady characters who try to scam her right back. There are imposing figures who she cannot overwhelm physically, but Emily is savvy, so she navigates the crime world. It gets intense, though.
Underlying the compelling crime story is a scathing indictment of the work culture that undervalues human beings. Emily's food delivery job makes her an independent contractor, which means she has little recourse when the boss denies her shifts she needs to earn a living.
At least that job pays her when she does work, though. Other companies present opportunities to work as an intern for free. The internship would take as many hours, or more, away from Emily's paying jobs, so how is she supposed to survive while she works her way up to a paid position?
It is satisfying when Emily confronts the executives of those companies, but it doesn't change anything. They're still the gatekeepers, and will move on to find somebody who can afford to, or is willing to, work for free.
Though not explicit, one could rationalize that Emily is only stealing from other companies that likely put their workers in the same position she's in. Meanwhile, creditors keep Emily under their thumb by applying payments only to interest, so she can never pay down her principal.
Plaza, who produced writer-director John Patton Ford's Emily the Criminal through her Evil Hag Productions, gets to be vulnerable, as well as sassy and empowered. It's a side of her she's gotten to dabble in with roles like Ingrid Goes West and Black Bear, but never before in this genre.
Emily is the anti-hero for 2022. She tried to play by the rules, but when the game is rigged, she games the system. Emily's new life of crime comes at higher risk to her physical safety, making for an exciting film as viewers root for Emily to come out on top.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.