John Patton Ford: Emily the Criminal (2022) | featured image
Aubrey Plaza in Emily the Criminal (2022) | Photo by Low Spark Films | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

SFIFF 2022: ‘Emily the Criminal’ Director on Rejecting the American Dream

Director John Patton Ford discusses his debut feature Emily the Criminal, a critique of American society borne within the death of the American Dream.

Emily the Criminal
John Patton Ford
Roadside Attractions / Universal Pictures
29 April 2022 (SFIFF)

Emily, once an aspiring artist, now an independent catering contractor, is told by her employer, “I’m sorry, are you an employer? No, you’re an independent contractor. So quit talking like you got rights and go back to work.” In director John Patton Ford’s debut feature, Emily the Criminal (2022), the titular character played by producer Aubrey Plaza, is beleaguered by mounting student debt and a string of unsuccessful job interviews and hindered by a DUI charge.

When a colleague connects her with an opportunity to earn extra cash, she begins a journey that will change her life forever. She’s invited to participate in an illegal scheme, purchasing goods with a stolen credit card. The scam is run by mid-level criminal Youcef (Theo Rossi). In spite of her qualms over the moral implications, Emily is seduced by the earning potential and encourages Youcef to mentor her.

Seeing the beleaguered Emily punished for her one mistake, the film is a cinematic expression of the hypocrisy of accountability and how it ties into opportunity. In Trump’s US presidency and Boris Johnson’s premiership as UK Prime Minister, we see two morally dubious men hold the highest offices in their respective nations. This touches upon the inequality of accountability that is biased towards gender, race, and economics. Allegations of bullying and sexual harassment did not thwart Trump’s election, nor did evidence of Johnson’s dismissal for lying in previous employment and his unscrupulous character prevent his ascendancy to power.

Admittedly, these are extreme comparisons about the severe bias and privilege that compromises our social moral fabric. The issue of accountability, however, goes to the heart of the justice system, where before the law everyone is clearly not equal. The rules of society are designed to devalue and disempower the majority. With a tempered intellectual tenacity towards the themes and ideas, Emily the Criminal has a conscience, and it gives voice to those who are rarely heard.

In conversation with PopMatters, Ford discusses the burden of dreams and the impractical aspirations of one generation placed on another. He also talks about the way education is boxing young people out of the economy, and his conflicted feelings towards his protagonist who decides to play by her own rules.

To begin, tell us about the film’s personal roots.

I’ve never committed credit card fraud – not yet, the night is young.

At the time when I wrote the script, which was a couple of years ago, I was frustrated. I had a lot of student debt, I was having trouble getting the kind of work I wanted, and at times I felt hopeless.

I’d hoped to be a filmmaker and I’d invested in that. I felt it was an impossible endeavour, and it wasn’t going to lead anywhere. I wrote this script as a way to exorcise that base anxiety and get some satisfaction. I was also feeling a lot of nihilism at that time. I’m not proud of feeling that way, but I felt a bit like, ‘Why try?’

In a city where the cost of living is exorbitantly high and the cards are stacked against you, it’s how I felt. I’m not saying that any of those things are objectively true, but I felt that way.

From writing the script to now, has your mindset shifted?

My perspective on society hasn’t shifted; my feelings are pretty much the same. In the United States, we’ve typically saddled young people with a substantial amount of debt at an early point in their lives, which is dangerous because it boxes them out from the economy. This affects not just young people, but everyone, and we have a major bubble that’s going to burst.

My feelings have changed. I’m much happier now than when I first wrote the script. There’s the irony that I was hopeless and in debt, and I made a movie about someone who was hopeless and in debt that actually got me out of debt, and helped me feel more hope. I don’t know what this means exactly. Is it art imitating life, and then life reacting to art, and here I am in a better place?

The film challenges the fading pride of the “American Dream”, wrapped up as an idealist aspiration. In Emily the Criminal, the “Dream” is available for purchase on the black market via an act of deceptive and secretive self-preservation.

Have you seen The Dropout (Elizabeth Meriwhether, 2022)? It tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes, who founded the company Theranos. It’s interesting to me because this was someone who had such dreams – the burden of American dreams. The burden of you are here to achieve and your goal should be to become fantastically wealthy. It’s what you’re supposed to do.

Growing up, those who had a lot of money, especially men, people would say about them, “He’s done well.” Or, “Your cousin Scott, he has done well.” Really? Is he a good father? Is he a good friend? Does he recycle? No, he’s just rich, so he’s done well?

I was raised in an environment where you were supposed to achieve, but then you’re a millennial and you go into debt. You get an education, and when you finish the economy crashes. You can’t afford anything, then there are two wars and a pandemic, and all this other stuff. Suddenly you’re in a context that can’t play host to that dream at all, and yet you still have a dream.

This has been a communal experience for nearly everyone my age. We’re laden with the dreams of a previous generation, trying to somehow make that work in a current generation, and it’s not sustainable. My parents didn’t pay anything to go to college and were able to buy a home while they were pretty young. I’m not insinuating they had it easier, because they didn’t. They contended with civil and women’s rights, Vietnam, and the draft. But financially it was a different situation.

The American Dream, we’re adjusting. We’re gradually learning that you can’t raise people with those expectations in a world where we don’t have the latitude for those expectations anymore.

Emily elicits the audience’s sympathy because she’s the victim of an absence of social forgiveness. She’s impeded from improving her financial self-reliance and accessing opportunities for professional progression that provide the means for the basic human need for security. Forgiveness and not allowing one mistake (within reason) to define a person’s life is an important act of social empathy.

When we punish people for one indiscretion, effectively what we’re saying is people are unable to change. It’s one of my primary issues with cancel culture for instance. There are the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world and others who need to be put away, but then there are those who you ask, “Are we prepared to say people are beyond forgiveness, or, beyond being able to change themselves? What does that say about us?”

We grow up hearing about the rules of society, how it’s supposed to work and what the laws are. Sometimes we’re slow to realise the laws were put in place by people who acquired power. We assume that they’re there to help us, and sometimes they are, but ultimately they’re servicing the people who put those laws in place. Many of those at the top that are creating those rules got there by any means. The rules weren’t necessarily made to benefit you, they were made to benefit the person making the rules.

The whole reason the United States came to exist, to begin with, is because people didn’t want to pay their taxes and they fought a war. They’re rebels and outlaws all the way up the line.

Here’s a story about doing the most innocuous kind of crime: credit card fraud. You’re temporarily inconveniencing an individual and you’re robbing from an insurance company – wow, cry me a river. It’s nothing compared to the injustices that American insurance companies have been pulling for decades. So a part of it was a way for me to exorcise those ideas, but beyond that, the central character is a victim on some level, but then, she’s also not.

She has an opportunity in this story. She can clean up her act. Why not work as an intern at the ad agency and then maybe do some fraud at night to pay her rent, then she can have a real job? She has real opportunities, so a lot of it is about who she is as a human being. She’s made to be a crook; it’s what she was designed to do.

Aside from the politics and the social issues, it’s a coming-of-age story about someone realizing what they love to do, and will continue to do regardless of how society might look upon it.

She’s someone who has lost faith in society. I agree with Emily when she challenges the expectation of the person at the internship interview that she’ll work for nothing. She feels that if she goes along with the system and plays by the rules, somewhere along the line the system will renege on its inferences of possible opportunities.

Yet, she still provokes a conflicted emotional response, because she’s both victim and perpetrator.

I don’t know how I feel about her and I wrote her. Maybe that’s the compelling thing. There are parts of her I understand and empathise with, and then there are other parts of her I think are reprehensible. I’m willing to love her as a character and see her humanity either way.

You made an interesting point a moment ago, that she’s lost hope, and the system lost hope in other people. She has, and that’s important. When you have a society that does this to people, you should expect that there are going to be people who say, “If the rules are rigged, then I’m not going to play. I’m going to play by my own rules.”

In the US we have loan officers whose sole job is to go to high schools and convince 18-year-olds to take out upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes private loans, to get an education. It’s incredible – 18-year-olds who aren’t old enough to drink, who aren’t old enough to take out a business loan to start their own business, but they can take out a loan from the federal government to get an education.

It’s a loan they can’t get rid of. If you can’t pay it off, it’s bankruptcy, and even if you kill yourself, with a student loan it’ll go to your next of kin. The sheer evil of that is astounding. The only way you can get your education 100% paid for in the United States is if you join the military [laughs].

If you systematically do that to people for too long, they’ll check out and say, “I don’t care about this dream anymore.”

Emily the Criminal is driven by understanding, not judgement. It’s a statement about the difficult choices people are forced to make within a broken capitalist society, and how the immoral choice does not define the person as immoral. We shouldn’t exit this film feeling we should judge her. Instead, Emily should provoke a self-reflective conversation.

If I, the filmmaker judge the character, then that leaves nothing for the audience to do – they can just walk away. By being less judgemental and even inconclusive, you’re allowing the audience to make their own decision.

When I was a little kid I stayed up too late watching The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981) – one of my all-time favourites. […] I remember at the very end, the people get away from the bad guys, and in voiceover, we hear someone say, “We got away and everything was fine, and oh, the road warrior, we never saw him again.” The last shot is the central character we’ve been with the entire time standing alone in the middle of a road as he recedes into the distance, and it cuts to the credits. It’s the most rock ‘n’ roll ending to a movie.

You’re with him throughout this entire ordeal and the movie just leaves him, telling you we don’t know what happened to him. It’s incredible and it’s engaging because it gives the audience a great gift: now it’s yours and you get to imagine where it goes next. Is that not wonderful and magical? That’s the high watermark for my filmmaking.