‘Emily the Criminal’ unlocks the brutality of the millennial grind

Facing a world of economic despair, Aubrey Plaza takes back her own fate in new thriller “Emily the Criminal.”

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The Belcourt Theatre

Emily, as portrayed by Aubrey Plaza in “Emily the Criminal.” (Photo Courtesy of The Belcourt Theatre)

Released on Aug. 12, “Emily the Criminal” is the perfect film for a time of capitalist crisis, in which even rain is too toxic to drink and many young adults see only a bleak future ahead of them. That is to say, it’s the perfect movie for right now. 

Following the escalating criminal enterprises of thirty-something Emily (Aubrey Plaza), an LA artist trapped in the gig economy by student loan debt and an old felony conviction, “Emily the Criminal” is not your typical crime film or thriller. Which isn’t to say that there’s not plenty of crime. By the end of the film, Emily, whose rap sheet is the first thing we see of her as the opening scene fades in, has committed credit card fraud, outright theft, assault and battery and eventually flees the country before the feds can stop her. But she–while without a doubt is morally questionable–is definitely not a criminal mastermind. There are no millions at stake, no fast cars or penthouses. Emily can’t even afford the rent for her cramped apartment, let alone one that would dazzle the ordinary supervillain. No, “Emily the Criminal” finds its frenetic energy in much simpler and more relatable places. 

At the heart of the film, all the aging millennial wants is to pay off her student loans, get to travel a little and have free time to paint, which her boss, who proudly toes the borderline of labor law violation as closely as possible, happily denies her. When we first meet Emily, she’s exhausted and clearly nearing her breaking point, but she’s been diligent and worked within the system—down to her bones. 

Becoming a career criminal obviously wasn’t the plan, but when a coworker at her UberEats-style catering gig gives her the number for a guy that’ll pay $200 for just an hour’s work, she can’t say no. That is, of course, the beginning of the end. One job turns into two—the money’s just too good—and soon she’s running the operation for herself, a recognized member of Los Angeles’s less-than-legal underbelly one stolen TV at a time.  

Emily’s crimes are almost more brutal for their lack of grandiosity, tucked into her neighborly working-class community in Los Angeles and projected through the stark blue tint that blankets the film’s visuals. Maybe it’s easy to say a lot of people would do some pretty bad deeds for a million dollars. That kind of thing feels lightyears away from reality, tucked neatly away into the realm of the cinematic. But to witness what Emily will do for just $2,000 and the small hope of eventually paying off her loans? It’s horrifying, and it captures the desperation of our age at its worst. 

Of course, while it might seem tempting to say that she could’ve avoided such a path as hers, “Emily the Criminal” somehow convinced me otherwise. Emily’s hardly an “everywoman”—every time she’s seen with her peers, it’s clear she doesn’t mesh and keeps mostly to herself. She’s a grim outcast with a sketchy scammer boyfriend (with whom she has great chemistry—shoutout to Theo Rossi for his performance as Youcef). She doesn’t seem to care whether anyone likes her or not, and by the end of the movie, I honestly didn’t. Yet, she comes to represent a common struggle; even in her worst moments, I understood that there was no alternative. 

She’s shocking and relentless, and she somehow got me to root for her anyways. If we’re honest, selling stolen flatscreens wouldn’t be the most unthinkable thing ever at our own breaking points. Doing coke in a questionable-looking club bathroom? I’m sure a shockingly large number of college students can relate. Dating someone whose business enterprises were just a bit over on the illegal side? Well, hopefully that’s not very common, but you never know. The dating scene’s desperate out here. 

In the end, the biggest win of “Emily the Criminal” is that it knows its audience shockingly well, and it knows what we’re capable of. In fact, we might’ve just found the anti-girl boss we never knew we needed. The realization of Aubrey Plaza’s Travis Bickle era, if you must. 

And if that alone doesn’t have you convinced, then at the very least it’s a stimulating, fast-paced breakthrough amid cinema’s August drought. 

“Emily the Criminal” is now showing at the Belcourt Theatre.