Emily is a specific individual, but she is also representative of her generation’s particular struggles. She went to an expensive art school, graduating with a degree in portraiture and a mountain of debt. There is no way on earth she can ever pay it back, neither the interest nor the principal. Emily has a record. There was a DUI in college. There was also an arrest for assault. This 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 with no warning and she has no recourse). She hauls lasagna into gleaming corporate offices, where women in tailored suits mill about waiting for her to finish. She is offered a promising internship, but the internship is, of course, 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 up front that what they will be doing is illegal (but safe), and if anyone doesn’t feel comfortable it’s okay to get up and leave. His manner is quiet and kind and he inspires trust. Emily is given a fake license, a fake credit card, and instructions on what to purchase for black market re-selling. Later on, as Emily gets up to speed, 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), keeps dangling the possibility of recommending Emily for a job as a graphic designer at her ad agency, highlighting the vast abyss between the two friends’ circumstances. (Liz, being sent to Portugal on business, complains to Emily, “It’s for only 11 days.” Only!)
As the jobs get riskier and riskier, Emily’s true nature is activated, calling to mind the opening scene where Emily turns a failing job interview on its ear. She never plays defense. She goes on the offense as quickly as possible. She thinks on her feet. When she decides to fight back, she can be quite frightening. She likes Youcef, an immigrant from Lebanon with dreams, things he’s saving up 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 ignites the film overall is Aubrey Plaza’s unpredictable and often thrilling performance.