In Gripping Heist Thriller ‘Emily the Criminal,’ Aubrey Plaza Is a Debt-Ridden Millennial With Nothing to Lose
An underemployed art school graduate goes outside the law to pay off her debts in “Emily the Criminal,” a heist thriller that explores current issues plaguing many millennials. Aubrey Plaza showcases a different side of herself as the title character, a young woman from New Jersey who came to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams, but finds herself having to work a dead-end contract job delivering food. After a colleague (Bernardo Badillo) slips her a number she can call to make a quick buck, she finds herself getting pulled into a life of crime.
Emily’s story of being saddled with debt that she cannot pay off due to the lack of decent-paying jobs for someone with her skillset is a familiar one for many Americans, including writer-director John Patton Ford. Although he never got into credit card fraud or stealing cars like Emily does , the script was inspired by his own frustrations with the job market and his student loan debt from graduate school.
“I knew that I wasn’t alone,” Patton Ford told Entertainment Voice. “So many people in the U.S. are going through the same process. In a way, we all have this mutual elephant in the room that we’re dealing with, so I wanted to make a movie that would kind of honor that stress that we’re all dealing with.”
Also holding Emily back is an arrest from years prior. We learn quickly just how tough she is in the film’s opening, in which she walks out of an interview after the interviewer lies about having done a background check on her, but not before giving him a piece of her mind. It’s a side of Plaza, an actress whom one usually associates with comedy, we are not used to seeing. Patton Ford recalled first meeting her after a friend passed along his script to her.
“Immediately, I was caught off guard because, I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t get this dark, sardonic personality. I got this full human being with this full spectrum of colors and all these interesting angles.”
Emily starts off working for Youcef (Theo Rossi) by doing a scam involving her using a credit card with stolen numbers he printed out to purchase a large television. The thrill of the crime and the quick payday suck her in, and she soon graduates to car theft. Technically, these are non-violent crimes, but there is still a level of risk for Emily, even more so because she is a woman. The viewer especially fears for her safety during a gripping scene in which she is racing against the clock to pull off a car heist. Patton Ford revealed that he initially wrote the character as a man.
“It was pretty boring (laughs),” he admitted with a laugh. “It just felt like we had seen this before, and I had the idea to switch it to a female character just to see what would happen, and it immediately became more interesting. The stakes were greater. At that point, I just stopped thinking about gender and I never thought about it from that point on. I just concentrated on her as a person. What would this person do, regardless of sex or gender?”
Emily’s gender is also an issue during a great scene in which she is interviewing to be an assistant to Alice (Gina Gershon), a successful executive and the boss of her best friend and former classmate Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Emily walks into the interview not knowing that the position is a glorified internship. As Alice had to pay her dues as a woman climbing the corporate ladder, she has no qualms about using an unpaid assistant. The conversation between the women becomes a heated one that highlights some key differences between Millennials/Zoomers and Boomers/Gen Xers. Patton Ford explained that the scene, which was polarizing at screenings, was gratifying to write.
“Those are all things that I felt and that I’ve wanted to say so many times, especially in the film industry and entertainment industry. The level of abuse is beyond real. The important thing there was that I did not want to villainize Gina Gershon’s character or her generation. I wanted people to identify with her in certain ways, and for audiences to feel like she was also right.”
Emily gets in deeper with Youcef, which raises the stakes even further and causes friction with his brother and business partner Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori). Youcef, a Lebanese immigrant, is an intriguing character in his own right, and this is thanks to both Rossi’s performance and Patton Ford’s empathy for him. Although he comes from a different background as Emily, Youcef has similar wants and needs, and is chasing his own version of the American dream. Patton Ford explained how the character came out of his feelings about the United States being a country of immigrants.
“There is no U.S. It is a transient space that people have passed through for a couple of hundred years. I wanted Yosef to be this latest line of person who’s coming here and doing whatever he can to get by and get to the next level. We’re so quick to forget that our ancestors did some version of the same thing.”
“Emily the Criminal” is powerful in the way that it is sure to make viewers think differently about certain people, especially those struggling due to student loans and other forms of debit. Patton Ford explained, “I hope they feel empathy for people who have a lot of debt and people who are boxed out of finding the right job. We have an entire generation of people who are saying these things, and it seems like people just make jokes about them.”
“Emily the Criminal” releases Aug. 12 in theaters nationwide.