Criminalizing Emily: a Review

In “Emily the Criminal” streaming on Netflix now, the main character is a working-class female who labors in the food service industry. Bearing $70,000 in student debt for an unfinished art school degree, she puts her talent on hold and turns to crime that another criminal enterprise, the financialization of higher education, propels. One crime is illegal. The other is legal. That sums up late capitalism.

The American actor Aubrey Plaza shines as Emily. Her facial and verbal reactions to precarious employment and student indebtedness speak volumes. In one memorable scene, Emily’s boss drives home the point that she is an independent contractor with no rights. As we see painfully, the boss does not have to be right; he (a male in this case) merely has to be the boss. Employers rule, a social reality for millions of workers in the USA, with its labor force of 160 million.

We turn to the Economic Policy Institute for the dour details of what it means to be an independent contractor in the American labor market now. “The way a worker is classified has serious implications and costs for their labor rights and economic security. When employers misclassify workers who are employees as independent contractors, they lose the legal right to earn at least the applicable minimum wage and to be paid time-and-a-half for overtime hours. They are no longer eligible to participate in state and federal unemployment insurance systems or qualify for workers’ compensation insurance covering treatment and benefits if they get hurt on the job. They are no longer eligible for the protections in the National Labor Relations Act, which ensures workers’ rights to form unions and bargain collectively to improve their working conditions. As independent contractors, misclassified workers must also assume the full financial cost of Social Security and Medicare, which is split evenly between workers and employers when workers are classified properly as employees.”

Add student loan debt, 45 million borrowers owing a collective $1.7 trillion in 2022, according to Forbes.This is social reality. You get a sense of the desperation that young people like the character Emily experience.

Theo Rossi plays Youcef, Emily’s mentor and more in credit card fraud. He exudes charisma and mystery. Youcef’s cousin, Khalil, is a menacing partner in crime. Keep an eye on him.

Director John Patton Ford and Plaza combine to deliver a taut thriller. Without disclosing the ending, it reminded me a bit of the final scene in “Body Heat” in which we see the Kathleen Turner character on the beach as she enjoys the fruits of her past actions.

At the end of the day, Emily the Criminal indicts late capitalism, and its relentless drive to suck income and wealth from the bottom and middle classes to the upper class via financial transactions. The current landscape in higher education, from student debt to precarious labor conditions for academic workers, is proof of that. Such a society also atomizes its oppressed members to ape the possessive individualism of their oppressors, hidden by the potent veil of the market.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email