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EMILY THE CRIMINAL: 4 STARS. “reveals vulnerability and steeliness.”

“Emily the Criminal,” a new crime drama, now playing in theatres, and starring Aubrey Plaza, uses ripped-from-the-headlines topics—student debt, the terrible job market and the gig economy—to fuel a story of a search for liberation.

Plaza plays Emily, a young woman whose criminal record, although minor, and short temper make it difficult for her to advance up the job ladder. Stuck in a dead-end restaurant job, she barely scrapes by, let alone put a dent in her $70,000 student debt.

Desperate, she takes a job working with the slick-talking black-market thief Youcef (Theo Rossi). The scam is simple. She’ll be a “dummy shopper,” someone who buys merchandise with stolen and forged credit cards. A quick $200 payoff later, her cool and calm demeanor impresses Youcef who offers her a bigger, though more dangerous job for the next day.

Seduced by the money, she goes into business, personally and professionally, with Youcef. She begins earning good money, and, as their relationship blossoms, finds love. But when she gets sloppy, scamming the same store more than once in a week, she learns the easy money can disappear as quickly as it appeared. Unless she does something about bit.

“Emily the Criminal” is a hard-boiled look at the intersection of desperation and opportunity.

Director John Patton Ford and Plaza craft a portrait of Emily, a millennial fighting for her piece of the American Dream, even though it remains just out of her reach. She is a complex character, edgy yet sympathetic, messy but focused. Plaza gives voice to Emily’s frustration of being forever punished for a mistake, but never panders to the audience in an attempt to be likable. She has lost faith in the polite society that hasn’t afforded her opportunity, so she steps outside it, and doesn’t look back. We may not make the same decisions as she, but her motivations, under the weight of a future filled with student debt and crappy jobs, come off as understandable. That is a credit to Plaza’s performance that reveals both Emily’s vulnerability and her steeliness.

Thanks to Plaza, “Emily the Criminal” is a fascinating character study, but crime aspects of the story are just as compelling. Like its main character, the movie is a mix of elements. Social commentary, crime drama, a hint of romance and character work, whose sum fit together like puzzle pieces.

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