There is no less specific, more generic phrase in film criticism than “documentary realism.” It assumes all nonfiction filmmakers work in the same style, toward the same intentions, while suggesting realism means, what, exactly? “Gritty” instead of “stylish?” Hand-held camerawork instead of fixed?
“Emily the Criminal,” a tough, lean little LA crime story, invites the docu-realist description, and its highly promising writer-director John Patton Ford comes out of the documentary field. But it’s no less indebted to the desperate-straits Depression-era dramas Hollywood was cranking out, often excitingly, in the pre-Production Code era of the early 1930s.
It’s also a fine dramatic showcase for Aubrey Plaza, whose wide-eyed intensity is right up there with pre-Code stars such as Ann “Scarface” Dvorak. Plaza honed her sardonic comic chops on “Parks and Recreation” and, more recently, modulated her doesn’t-miss-a-trick deadpan across a slew of indies and gunk like “Dirty Grandpa.”
Good material or bad, she’s an asset, a wonderfully precise yet natural-seeming performer. “Emily the Criminal” delves only so far into character on the page, but working from what writer-director Ford gives her, Plaza creates a woman defined by incremental degrees of economic stress and simmering resolve.
Emily’s a caterer, barely getting by, with $70,000 in student loans and an aggravated assault conviction blocking access to better-paying jobs. A co-worker mentions a side hustle he once tried: a credit card scam, run by an enterprising family working out of a warehouse.
Using fake cards and false IDs, the so-called “dummy shoppers” use the cards to buy merchandise, deliver it to the boss and get their modest cut. Emily’s first purchase is a $2,000 TV. Her commission: $200. It’s a start.
Soon she graduates to riskier, more expensive fake purchases. The scene in which she buys a fancy sports car escalates into a nail-biting exercise in pushing her own tolerance, and taste, for danger.
Where “Emily the Criminal” goes from there combines familiar ingredients in an absorbing fashion. This is a film shot in real apartments and offices on a tight budget. Theo Rossi brings a shrewd, watchful quality to the role of Youcef, Emily’s handler and, eventually, lover. He’s part of an extended family (also in on the charge card scam) that is posing an increasing threat to both him and Emily.
There are no better options for the protagonist. “I haven’t done anything in a while, artwise,” Emily tells a party guest at a gathering hosted by her ad agency friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Already, Emily’s secret life, her credit card fraud life, has begun to consume her. It’s her new art medium: the art of the subterranean steal.
Some of the developments feel more expedient than provocative, and there’s a too-neat ending. But there’s more than a kernel of truth in “Emily the Criminal” in nearly every interaction, and each rueful acknowledgment of American capitalism’s tough-luck-pal undertow. At one point, Emily lands a job interview at her friend’s ad agency, run by a smiling shark (Gina Gershon, perfect). One second the boss is buddy-buddy with Emily, since they’re both New Jersey natives; the next … well, in the realm of the unpaid internship, there is a winner and there is a loser.
The confrontation between these two, like the rest of this efficient, confident film, wastes no time and lets the actors — Plaza most of all — take care of business.
“Emily the Criminal” — 3 stars
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MPAA rating: R (for brief drug use, some violence and language)
Running time: 1:35
How to watch: Premieres in theaters Aug. 11; premieres Aug. 12 at the Music Box Theatre.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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