The last time the federal minimum wage was raised was in 2009, from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour. Meanwhile, the cost of living has increased by more than 20 percent over that period of time. This is a reality that many, many Americans are familiar with, and minimum wage isn’t even the whole story when it comes to financial struggles in the U.S. John Patten Ford’s feature debut exists in this very real world we are living in, working to explore the economic disparities and disadvantages so many Americans face in a very original way.
As a college dropout with $70,000 worth of debt and a criminal record, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) has a hard time finding a stable job. She currently works as a gig worker, running food orders to businesses as part of a catering company. A determined, smart, and hard-working woman shouldn’t be here. She should be pursuing her passion for painting, which she had to abandon in order to pay off her ever-increasing loan payments. One day, a co-worker tells her about an opportunity where she can make $200 in one hour. Skeptical at first, Emily meets up with the people who are offering this job. She soon discovers she can make a lot more than $200 if she stays smart about it.
The situation Emily is in is very common among younger generations – drowning in debt and unable to find a secure job that pays enough. As a felon for an aggravated assault charge, Emily is punished even further by the system she lives under. Even though it is clear she is intelligent and can handle herself, her opportunities are ruined by her past mistakes. Instead, Emily finds herself quickly moving up in this new illegal job she’s found after making friends with Youcef (Theo Rossi), the ringleader of the operation. The minor characters involved in this scheme, as well as the background characters, illustrate how many people are struggling to find financial stability in the current climate.
Ford’s themes of disparity translate not just economically, but generationally as well. When Emily goes in for a job interview that is set in her field of interest, she is disheartened by the benefits it refuses to offer her. In the longest scene of the film, Emily and her potential boss Alice (Gina Gershon) debate back and forth which generation had it harder. In their disagreement, the ideological differences between older generations and the younger ones are laid out plainly. In this frustrating exchange, Alice continually brushes off Emily’s woes with her own struggles as a woman girl-bossing her way to the top in the world of men. Her dismissal of Emily’s very real and dire problems, chalking them up to “not working hard enough,” is the familiar rebuttal so many of us hear from the leaders of this country.
Emily the Criminal is a gritty thriller that constantly keeps you on your toes. Elevated by Plaza’s passionate performance, the film successfully portrays the discontent many Americans are facing at this very moment. As she ventures deeper into the criminal world, the stakes are raised higher and higher. What works the best here is seeing Emily’s very common situation and how she has to operate outside the laws of capitalism in order to try to live her life. From the start, Emily is already seen as a criminal because of her record. As the film plays out and Emily falls deeper into illegal activity, it becomes clear that the actual villain is the system we are living in. The system that would rather punish than help, that would rather turn a blind eye than address the real criminals who sit at the top.