Emily (Aubrey Plaza) has a blot on her permanent record: an aggravated assault charge against her then boyfriend, before she dropped out of art college, carrying $70k of student loan debt with her into the brutal job market in Los Angeles. One employer tricks her into not mentioning the conviction, then holds that against her; another, played with boss-bitch entitlement by Gina Gershon, expects interns to work unpaid for at least six months.
What’s a girl to do? Delivering food for a catering company is not going to cut it, either. A co-worker, sensing her desperation, hooks her up with a phone number to make a quick buck – $200 in an hour, to be exact. Guard up, she follows the instructions, arriving at a warehouse where a credit-card fraud ring is duly operating.
Youcef (Sons of Anarchy’s Theo Rossi) calls the shots in this HQ, under the watchful eye of his cousin Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori). They give her a fake ID and a fake card, and send her into a tech store to buy a flat-screen TV, which is then flogged on the black market.
Most of their lackeys stop at that level, but Emily gambles on taking it up a notch: the next scam is buying a car on no-limit credit, and she has eight minutes to make her getaway from the dealership before the bank wises up. This midway crux is about as thriller-ish as Emily the Criminal gets, without overcranking the suspense or needing a breathless score to do its work. It’s precise and methodical, and crucially, believable.
Much of the film’s success comes down to Plaza, who has left that deadpan sphinxlike mode of hers some way back in the rear-view mirror. Grit replaces irony, and it’s fascinating to watch her think her way through every predicament here, deftly and in detail, weighing the percentages.
We’re shown a character at the end of one tether – her temper cleanly snaps in the Gershon scene – and grabbing for purchase on an illegal alternative which suits her self-reliance. You certainly don’t want Emily to get caught, which is a testament to writer-director John Patton Ford’s success in making her surrounding circumstances so authentic.
The film hits a slight dramatic ceiling – Emily’s embroilment with Youcef ties it down, when it’s her rogue agency we’re keener to explore. At times, it can feel like more of a pilot episode, a promising foundation for a story, than a complete working-through of its concept. But Plaza sells it, grounds it, and makes it a vehicle for her own subtle reinvention. Daylight robbery becomes her.
15 cert, 97 min. Available to rent or download on digital platforms