In the new film “Emily the Criminal,” the title character, played by actress Aubrey Plaza, is almost always in a state of fear.
There are moments where Emily’s dread lifts: after one of her successful heists, when she’s painting in her apartment to classical music or when she’s falling in love with Youcef (Theo Rossi), who has introduced her to the world of credit card fraud. But these reprieves are always brief, and soon the fear is back. That’s largely because of another constant in Emily’s life: her $70,000 in student debt.
The paltry wages from her food delivery job barely allow her to keep up with the interest accumulating on her student debt each month. So Emily reinvents herself as a criminal, purchasing pricey electronics with stolen credit cards, in pursuit of a less predictable life.
“I think fear is the great motivator of human beings,” said John Patton Ford, 40, the film’s screenwriter and director. “We do nearly everything out of fear. The only reason anyone would do what she does is because they’re horribly afraid of the consequences of not doing them.”
I spoke with Ford — whose film was a critic’s pick of The New York Times and has received awards at the Annapolis Film Festival and the Deauville American Film Festival in Deauville, France, this year — about his interest in the student loan crisis and his decision to make his first feature film about the subject.
The film debuted in theaters in August, just days before President Joe Biden revealed his highly anticipated plan to forgive a large share of Americans’ student loan debt. Even if the plan survives Republican challenges, outstanding student loan debt will still exceed $1 trillion, and every year an additional 5 million Americans borrow for their education.
For those who haven’t yet seen the film, the discussion below — which has been edited and condensed for clarity — includes spoilers.
Annie Nova: From the start of the film, Emily is in a really desperate financial situation. Why did you make her student debt such a big part of her panic?
John Patton Ford: Personal experience. I went to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and graduated in 2009 with around $93,000 in debt. Every decision came down to it: Can I fly home to visit my family over the holidays? Can I afford to get coffee with a friend? It pretty much ran my whole life. And I knew I wasn’t alone in this crisis. There are tens of millions of Americans who are dealing with the same thing, but I’d never seen a movie about it.
AN: Have you paid off the debt by now?
JPF: I don’t have the debt any longer, but it took a miracle. Getting a screenwriting career is an absolute miracle. I think there are about the same amount of people in the Writers Guild of America as there are Major League Baseball players. And even then, I wasn’t able to pay the debt off. It took becoming a director and getting a first movie made, which is astronomically difficult. My sister went to medical school — she’s an anesthesiologist — and she’s been working for like 15 years now, and she’s still paying off her student debt.
‘No other country would tolerate this’
AN: Did you research the student loan crisis for the film? What did you learn?
JPF: It really started in 1980 with Ronald Reagan deregulating the economy so that major corporations could figure out a way not to pay their taxes. And now, 40 years later, the net outcome is that the government no longer makes the tax revenues that they used to. They’re not able to subsidize education, and so we hand off the expenses to people who are now going into massive amounts of debt to go to school.
This happened so slowly that we haven’t really reckoned with the fact that we’re the only country in the Western world that has this system. No other country would tolerate this. If this happened for one day in France, there would be mass protests. They’d set buildings on fire.
AN: I found it really interesting that you made Emily a painter — and a talented one, too. But her lifestyle leaves little room for her to make art. What is the film trying to say about the impacts of student debt on artists?
JPF: We’ve set up a society that doesn’t make it easy for artists. So many artistic innovations that have happened throughout the years happened because artists were in a society that supported or enabled them. Would the Beatles have existed without the robust social programs in England in the 1950s that allowed them not to work full time or that made it so inexpensive to go to college? They got to take classes, then go home and practice as a band. But if the Beatles had $100,000 in student debt, they’d be working in a coal mine. The amount of talent that is not being developed today and that we’ll never get to profit from as a society is tragic.
AN: There are so many things you could have made Emily do to try to pay off her student debt. Why did you have her get into credit card fraud?
JPF: I think the more disenfranchised you become with the way things work, the more nihilistic you feel, and you can become like, ‘Well if they’re ripping me off, I’m going to rip someone else off.’ The minute you lose faith in things, you kind of become just as bad as the system.
AN: I really liked the scene where Youcef is talking about the kind of house he wants to live in one day, with an open kitchen. And then later, he’s excited to introduce Emily to his mother. Why make this person, involved in all these financial crimes, also have these very ordinary desires and dreams?
JPF: It says something about our vision of what is realistic in this day and age. As someone who lives in L.A., I can tell you, you can’t own a home here unless you’re a millionaire or a kind of criminal. You start doing the math, and you suddenly go, ‘Yeah. I’m willing to commit credit card fraud in order to throw a grenade into the system so I can actually own something.’ That just seemed like a more relatable, down-to-earth reason for doing things.
AN: At the end of the film, Emily is running her own credit card scheme in South America. It feels like a victory in that she hasn’t been caught and she’s still alive, but she’s also still locked in this dangerous and precarious cycle.
JPF: The story is ultimately a character study; it’s about someone figuring out what they’re good at, and what they like to do and what they’ll probably continue doing. It’s a coming-of-age story less than a thriller. Emily gets this opportunity to go to a foreign country and maybe focus on art, but then subsequently realizes that it’s just not enough. I wanted to end it where Emily finally gets what she thinks she wants: She really likes being the boss of things, and art never enabled her to do that but this new life of crime does. I have that last scene to show her full progression as a character.
AN: How can films shine a light on the student loan crisis in a way that other mediums can’t?
JPF: Near the end of his life, someone asked Roger Ebert to define a movie. And he said, “A machine that creates empathy.” I always thought that’s a pretty good answer. Movies have a superpower that’s hard to compare with other mediums. They really quickly get the audience to empathize with the central character and to feel what that person is feeling.