Crime can pay, sometimes—it’s playing by the rules that doesn’t work.
That’s the situation Aubrey Plaza finds herself in as the titular character in Emily the Criminal, in theaters August 12.
Emily’s an artist who dropped out of college when her family needed her but is still saddled with student loans. She’s also got a felony on her record for assaulting a then-boyfriend in another failed attempt to make her life better (of the assault, she says her mistake was not going further, not making him really scared of her so he wouldn’t press charges).
This combination of a criminal record, crushing student loans, and no degree means she’s stuck working in the gig economy as she watches the life of her more fortunate best friend and fellow art school student Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) take off. Not until coworker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) connects her with a criminal enterprise does Emily’s life finally start to take off too.
It’s not just having some money and the freedom that goes with her new gig. Crime suits Emily, awakening something ruthless and strong within her. It makes her alive in a way that trying to follow the rules never did.
Aubrey Plaza delivers a powerful performance. She transitions slowly over the course of the film, leaning in to own her presence, power, and sexuality as her time on screen mounts.
Puerto Rican and Irish-English, Plaza came to fame as the petulant April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Now, more than a decade later, she’s pushing the envelope on who she can play and to what effect. There’s a bit of her comedic background here with Emily and much more nuance.
It’s unclear if the fair-skinned Emily is Latina. Her last name, Benetto, is Italian. She speaks English with an uneasily performed New Jersey accent. Yet her Spanish is crystal clear, and she dreams of traveling to South America. Javier is certainly Latino, and best friend Liz is Black, making Emily, perhaps, the poor little white girl, the one whose fortunes should have been better.
So the racial politics of the film are muddled. But the critique of capitalism is strong.
Everywhere she goes, Emily is labeled as lesser, sometimes invisible, sometimes as a criminal. The film opens with her trying to get a job at a medical office. The white interviewer lies to her about what he knows about her criminal record, and she gets more and more heated as his trick settles in. She eventually storms out and then has to go to her food delivery job where the clients pretend she’s invisible and her boss reminds her that she’s got no rights as an independent contractor, no union, and no protections
It’s worth noting of these two men that the white guy appears to have a pretty cushy office job while the Black guy is stuck in a basement, just one step above the Emilys and Javiers he supervises—a clear statement about race and class.
As the film goes on, Emily comes to fully understand her place in the world, and her pushback against those holding the economic strings get more forceful and more fun. She’s right!
Take the part, later in the film, where she realizes the “job” she’s interviewing for is really an unpaid internship, a.k.a. the ultimate scam of corporate America. She storms out of that interview as well, but not before reading the riot act to her white woman would-be-employer, portrayed by the perfectly cast Gina Gershon. This girl boss tries to act like her mere presence in the male-dominated ad industry gives her the right to treat her employees any which way, but Emily is having none of it. What use is power if you don’t try to change the game with it?
With these options, Emily decides to go hard on the credit card fraud scheme she’s found herself in, and her choice makes perfect sense. She’s tried everything else and gotten nowhere. Plus, she’s so often treated like a criminal, she might as well be one, right?
And while there are plenty of making-the-criminal movies, it’s rare to see one centering a woman and relishing in her breaking the law. By the end, Emily is not a fallen woman or a cautionary tale—she’s a (crime) boss, living her dream. While she does face some consequences, the film is a clear celebration of her choices.
Some may object —credit card fraud clearly doesn’t add much to society— but it’s nice to see a Latina anti-hero who’s ready to burn it all down. And Aubrey Plaza is certainly up to the job.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade