“What’s In Your Wallet?”

Film Review for Northern Express Published August 27, 2022

It begins with a lie, and ends with the truth in the suspenseful thriller “Emily the Criminal,” produced-by and starring Aubrey Plaza as the title character in a dazzling performance you probably won’t see coming. If you think you’d do anything to get rid of your student loan debt, here’s your chance to play along as the twenty-something Emily finds an opportunity too good to be true and decides to take it — changing the course of her otherwise dull day job delivering meals to corporate offices across Los Angeles where no one notices her unless the food is cold.

Emily’s secret life and passions are her love of painting, and art — her college major back in New Jersey where she’s from — and she carries her slight but proud accent west to California in order to follow her dreams. When the story opens, she’s in the endless loop of grinding it out, living in an Eastside apartment with roommates and slowly abandoning her dreams while her bills mount. It’s an never ending madness many will find more than relatable.

Her last hope is that her college friend Liz (played by Megalyn Echikunwoke) will get Emily an interview with the posh ad agency she works for, something Liz seems reluctant to do and the drift between her success and Emily’s increasing failures is pronounced; even as they still party hard into the night and try to ignore it.

Curiosity almost kills the caterer when Emily picks up a side-hustle shift for her friend Javier, and suddenly finds herself being recruited into a flash-and-grab credit card scheme that seems so real that it must happen every day around the world. Rather than bait and switch the recruits, the charismatic and handsome leader Youcef (played by Theo Rossi) is more than upfront about the assignment and the cash payments people will receive if they just follow his instructions. His honesty about dishonesty hooks Emily’s intellect and intrigue immediately.

While she senses danger in the scheme, that’s also what Emily seems to want — and taking risks and using her people skills, her addiction is set with the success of a first theft and a fast envelope of more cash than she’d make in a whole day of working. “It’s only temporary, right?”

From there, she maintains the facade of her day to day job while slowly taking more and more training from Yousef in the art of fraud and the rules of engagement. She’s a fast student and talented at making money, even as she navigates increasingly dicey and violent encounters as the deals and ripoffs get bolder in this modern Bonnie and Clyde crime spree.

For his part it’s all a means to an end for Youcef, who is slowly building up his stake in order to pursue his dreams. It’s the opposite of Emily’s acceptance for her life’s limits and her resignation to it. She’s seduced by his confidences and soon the two combine sex, cigarettes, and schemes the rest of the way as the story plays itself out to the completely satisfying and unexpected ending.

It’s a gritty and modern heist film, grounded in the strange dirty debt reality of America: a place where the chips stack up now quickly against you, and risks can sometimes seem worth it if it means you can feel free again and take control.

Written and directed by relative newcomer John Patton Ford in his third feature, and shot in tense and up-close reality by cinematographer Jeff Bierman with an almost imperceptible and terrific score by Nathan Halpern (The Rider) — Plaza’s wild journey from complacency to power as Emily is a nailbiter.

It’s the rare film in this genre that really focuses on a woman’s point of view, giving her complete reign to own and dominate the narrative. Other films often try, but they are tokens compared to this — and as Emily would say, sometimes the mistake is not goin’ far enough.

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