Emily is a specific individual, but she is also representative of her generation’s particular struggle. She went to an expensive art school, got a degree in portrait art and a mountain of debt. There is no way on earth she could ever pay it back, not the interest or the principal. Emily has a record. There was a DUI in college. There was also an arrest for assault. That means she can’t pass a background check, a roadblock, when applying for “real” jobs. She works for a GrubHub type company as a contractor (they can cut her hours without any warning and she has no recourse). She hauls lasagna to gleaming corporate offices, where women in tailored suits grind and wait for her to finish. She is offered a promising internship, but of course the internship is unpaid. She can’t go without pay for five months. Who can? Emily is trapped. That is, until a co-worker introduces her to the world of credit card fraud.
A group of people gather in a warehouse and are led through the process by Youcef (Theo Rossi), who says in advance that what they are going to do is illegal (but safe), and if anyone doesn’t feel comfortable, it’s okay to to get up and leave. His manner is quiet and friendly and he inspires confidence. Emily gets a fake license, a fake credit card, and instructions on what to buy for black market resale. Later, while Emily is on high, Youcef gives her a taser for protection and a burner phone. He shows her how to make the credit cards. She “takes” to this. The money is addictive. The thought of getting out of debt is an overwhelming incentive. Liz, Emily’s friend from art school (Megalyn Echikunwoke), pursues the possibility of recommending Emily for a job as a graphic designer at her advertising agency, highlighting the great gulf between the two friends’ circumstances. (Liz, sent to Portugal on business, complains to Emily, “It’s only for 11 days.” Only!)
As the jobs become more and more risky, Emily’s true nature is activated, reminiscent of the opening scene where Emily turns a failed job interview on its head. She never plays defense. She goes on the offense as fast as possible. She thinks on her feet. When she decides to fight back, she can be quite scary. She likes Youcef, an immigrant from Lebanon with dreams, things he saves for. Youcef likes her too. The credit card fraud aspect of “Emily the Criminal” is fascinating, a deep dive into the world of “dummy shopping,” but what sets the film on fire overall is Aubrey Plaza’s unpredictable and often electrifying performance.