Aubrey Plaza is a chameleon actor. The Sundance favorite has the ability to immerse herself in every role, no two performances are alike. With “Emily the Criminal” she turns in a career-high as a low-grade gangster forced into the Los Angeles underworld to pay off her student loans (yes, it’s come to that). Written and directed by John Patton Ford who returns to Sundance after a 12-year absence, the tension is unyielding, the writing impeccable, and the cast first-rate especially Theo Rossi as Plaza’s mentor and there’s a tenacious cameo by Gina Gershon.

By day Emily Benetto (Aubrey Plaza) works for a Los Angeles catering company. It’s a dead-end job with no chance of advancement but with a felony assault on her record (ex-boyfriend drama) and no college degree (despite being in debt $70k for student loans), she’s lucky to have the job.

After agreeing to work a double shift as a favor to co-worker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) who wants to spend time with his young son, he returns the good deed by giving Emily a contact number that guarantees a $200 payout for performing a small service. It’s not sexual.

Emily calls the number and is given directions to a warehouse where she meets Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his cousin Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori). The Lebanese immigrants are operating a small criminal syndicate using stolen credit card numbers to purchase goods that range from big-screen TVs to sports cars. First, fake credit cards are manufactured with an embossing machine (you can get one on Amazon) using the stolen numbers. A fake ID is created matching the “dummy shopper” to the name on the card. There is a chance the card won’t work so anyone pulling the scam is taking a risk of getting busted. Emily needs the cash so she’s all in.

Ford creates unyielding tension as Emily moves on to bigger jobs including stealing a car by using a fake cashier’s check and credit card. She only has a small window of time before the bank can verify the check so watching her deal with two big mafioso types while trying to get out of there is unnerving to watch.

Eventually, Emily tells Youcef that she wants to learn the business — this after a few bloody and bruised mishaps — he shows her the ropes, hooks her up with the equipment (and a police-grade taser) and deeper she falls into the criminal rabbit hole. Youcef goes behind Khalil’s back taking Emily on as a partner as the two become friends.

They say nice guys finish last and that goes for Youcef, a criminal with a heart. As we get to know the character he seems out of place as a criminal but when we find out the reason he’s doing it, everything makes sense. Rossi is superb in the role. He’s got charisma and great chemistry opposite Plaza. Even though Youcef and Emily are criminals you can’t help rooting for them to succeed as the why strangely outweighs the how.

Los Angeles crime films are like no other. There’s something about the City of Angels that makes for a good noir. It probably dates back to Raymond Chandler’s novels and films like “Double Indemnity” and “Kiss Me Deadly.” Other great L.A. crime films include “Chinatown,” “Heat,” “Boyz N The Hood,” “L.A. Confidential,” and one of my favorites “To Live and Die in L.A.” The list is never-ending and now you can add “Emily the Criminal” to the list of these exceptional films. Cinematographer Jeff Bierman perfectly captures the city’s energy and the film’s intensity using closeups while working with a hand-held camera to zero in on the action.

There is a great scene in the film that speaks volumes for those looking for a career, not just another job, especially anyone with a criminal record or without a college degree. After months of trying, Emily’s best friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who works at a marketing firm, finally lands a meeting between Emily and her boss (a great cameo by Gina Gershon) when a position opens. Imagine the letdown when Emily finds out it’s just an internship with no pay. This leads to a heated conversation as Emily, sick of all the B.S. she has had to put up with her whole life, goes off on Gershon doing what many of us only dream of doing in that situation.

John Patton Ford made his Sundance debut in 2010 with the short film “Patrol.” Over the last decade, he became an in-demand screenwriter penning scripts for Disney, Universal, and Sony. It was never his plan, he wanted to make films. In the end, it worked out like gangbusters. His experience writing helped him create the terrific script for “Emily the Criminal” which caught the attention of Aubrey Plaza who signed on as a producer. Ford’s return to Sundance marks one of the festival’s best offerings this year.

(4 stars)

Now showing in Dallas/Fort Worth theaters

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.