In ‘Emily the Criminal’, the Villian is a student loan (Review)

Aubrey Plaza stars in ‘Emily the Criminal’ (Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Low Spark Films)

Crime box sometimes paying is playing by the rules that doesn’t work.

This is the situation Place Aubrey finds himself as the titular character in Criminal Emilyin theaters August 12.

Emily is an artist who dropped out of college when her family needed her but is still struggling with student loans. She also has a felony on her record for assaulting a then-boyfriend in another failed attempt to improve her life (of the assault, she says her mistake went no further, not making her 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 luckier best friend and college student. art Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) take off. Only when her colleague Javier (Bernardo Badillo) connects her to a criminal enterprise Emily’s life is finally starting to take off too.

It’s not just having the money and the freedom that comes with his new gig. Crime suits Emily, awakening something ruthless and strong in her. It brings her to life in a way that trying to follow the rules never did.

Place Aubrey delivers powerful performance. She slowly evolves over the course of the film, leaning in to own her presence, power, and sexuality as her screen time mounts.

Puerto Rican and Irish-English, Plaza shot to fame as the bubbly April Ludgate on NBC Parks and recreation. Now, over a decade later, she’s pushing the boundaries of who she can play and to what effect. There’s a bit of his comedic background here with Emily and a lot more nuance.

It is unknown if light-skinned Emily is Latina. His surname, Benetto, is Italian. She speaks English with an uneasy New Jersey accent. However, her Spanish is crystal clear and she dreams of traveling to South America. Javier is certainly Latino and his best friend Liz is black, which makes Emily, perhaps, the poor little white girl, the one whose fortunes should have been better.

Thus, the film’s racial politics are confused. But the critique of capitalism is strong.

Wherever she goes, Emily is branded a lesser, sometimes invisible, sometimes a criminal. The film opens with her trying to find a job at a doctor’s office. The white interviewer lies to her about what he knows about her criminal record, and she grows increasingly heated as his turn sets in. She ends up storming out and then has to go to her food delivery job where customers claim she’s invisible and her boss reminds her that she has no rights as an independent contractor, no union. and no protection

It’s worth noting about these two men that the White seems to have a rather comfortable desk job while the Black is stuck in a basement, just a cut above the Emilys and Javiers he oversees – a statement clear on race and to classify.

As the film progresses, Emily comes to fully understand her place in the world, and her reaction against those holding the economic strings grows more energetic and fun. She’s right!

Take the role, later in the film, where she realizes the “job” she’s interviewing for is actually an unpaid internship, aka the ultimate corporate America rip-off. She also walks out of this interview, but not before reading the riot act to her future white employer, performed by the perfect cast. Gina Gershon. This boss tries to act like her mere presence in the male-dominated advertising industry gives her the right to treat her employees any way you want, but Emily doesn’t care. What good is power if you’re not trying to change the game with it?

With these options, Emily decides to go deeper into the credit card fraud scheme she’s found herself in, and her choice makes perfect sense. She tried everything and got nowhere. Besides, she’s so often treated like a criminal, she might as well be one, right?

And while there are plenty of movies out there doing crime, it’s rare to see one that centers on a woman and relishes her breaking the law. In the end, Emily isn’t a fallen woman or a cautionary tale – she’s a (criminal) boss, living her dream. Although she faces some consequences, the film is a clear celebration of her choices.

Some may object – credit card fraud obviously doesn’t do much for society – but it’s nice to see a Latina anti-hero ready to burn it all down. And Aubrey Plaza certainly delivers.


writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of, edifying gender-nonconforming Latina and Latina perspectives in the media. She is a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade