Emily the Criminal didn’t get much attention during its theatrical run in August or its debut on streaming in November, but the gritty thriller, which stars Aubrey Plaza as a woman who turns to increasingly dangerous scams in an attempt to pay off her art-school loans, jumped right into the Top 10 when Netflix added it earlier this month, in the runup to the final episode of The White Lotus’ second season. It’s been a favorite of mine since I saw it at Sundance, not only for its canny commentary on the millennial debt crisis but for what it throws into focus about Plaza’s career as a whole.
When you think of the face of a generation, your mind goes first to the biggest names, which for millennial actresses might be someone like Jennifer Lawrence or Kristen Stewart. But while Plaza has never anchored a blockbuster franchise or even a major movie hit—unless you count her vocal cameo in Monsters University, her biggest domestic grosser is Judd Apatow’s Funny People, in which she played a supporting part—the 38-year-old has had a knack for choosing roles that seem to connect with something larger about the evolution of her generation, roles that are, to use a word that age cohort has pounded almost into oblivion, iconic. (I acknowledge that if you were to apply this word to Aubrey Plaza in her presence, you would likely be rewarded with an April Ludgate–style eye roll to end all eye rolls.)
It would be reductive to say that Plaza’s playing the same character in everything she does, but her best performances feel as if they spring from the same source. (Think of her as the millennial John Cusack.) Parks and Recreation’s Ludgate and The White Lotus’ Harper aren’t the same person, but you can see how one might have become the other if their life had taken a different turn. Plaza initially became famous for her withering deadpan, the kind that could reduce the hopes of an idealist less determined than Leslie Knope to a smoldering ruin. But as Parks and Rec moved away from The Office’s cringe comedy, we started to see that there was more to April, and to Plaza, than her death-at-a-thousand-paces glare. Her reflexive cynicism was a defense mechanism, and sometimes an offensive weapon, as when her budding standup in Funny People mowed down the skepticism of older male comics with a quip about her “skinny vagina.” But not too far underneath it, and closer to the surface the older both she and her characters got, was an idealistic yearning for a better world, or at least a better life.
Sometimes that idealism tips into delusion, as in Ingrid Goes West, in which Plaza’s character becomes obsessed with Taylor Sloane, a social media influencer played by Elizabeth Olsen. Ingrid is like April turned inside-out, as vulnerable as the latter is guarded, and though she’s a fluid liar, ingratiating her way into Taylor’s life through a series of ruses, she’s not calculating or self-possessed enough to plan for the long term. All she wants is to feel as if someone important knows that she exists, although her definition of important has been entirely thrown out of whack by the skin-deep nature of online validation. The character is never formally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, but plenty of viewers have picked up on the signs, and at the very least it’s clear she has serious mental health issues, as well as a complete lack of anyone in her life to tell her she needs help.
An earlier generation’s version of this story would have mocked both Ingrid and Taylor for their shallowness, and trafficked in glib judgment about what’s really important. But by 2017, the distinction between the physical and online worlds had ceased to be so clear-cut, and nothing was as far removed from reality as claiming that what happens on the internet doesn’t matter. The problem is that without that facile divider, separating real connections from imagined ones becomes an ongoing negotiation, and often an impossible one. Like a smarter version of Dear Evan Hansen, the end of Ingrid Goes West suggests that the empathy we share with strangers online can be genuine, powerful, even life-changing, or terribly dangerous. Trying to keep straight which is which is enough to drive a person mad.
Plaza’s character in Emily the Criminal might once have been a sensitive soul, but by the time we catch up with her, she’s been hardened by the world—so much so that, upon catching a glimpse of the poster with Plaza’s toned biceps protruding from a sleeveless tank top, director Edgar Wright thought she’d been cast as the new Lara Croft. Emily’s no action hero, though, just a woman in her 30s struggling to pay off student debt on a caterer’s salary. The title makes us think we’re in for a story about an ordinary woman’s turn to the wrong side of the law, but when the movie begins, Emily’s already a felon, which makes it almost impossible for her to get a job that pays enough to keep on top of her loans, let alone afford her own apartment or build any kind of a life. No wonder she ends up running credit card scams—and no wonder she’s so good at it. Plaza’s keen intelligence is fully on display here, but she’s got nothing to turn it toward, and she’s so full of anger and self-hatred that she struggles to accept the few offers of help her former college classmates can offer. She’s a classic generational archetype, someone who was raised to believe the future was bright as long as you paid in advance, and then got there and found out all the doors were closed and the bills just kept coming.
The White Lotus’ Harper is more successful, but she doesn’t seem to be enjoying it much. Her husband Ethan (Will Sharpe) has just sold an app he developed for an undisclosed but obviously enormous sum of money, which has thrown Harper, a lefty labor lawyer, into an identity crisis—she’s used to suing the wealthy, not being one of them. She’s so troubled by “everything that’s going on in the world” that she can’t get to sleep without an Ambien, and yet she’s now one of the people who has to make a choice to care about those things, because they’re not actually likely to affect her anymore. Like the actors who play them—Plaza is half Puerto Rican, Sharpe half Japanese—Harper and Ethan are both people of color, but even being the object of racism is opt-in for them. After she meets Ethan’s finance-bro college roommate and his wife, Daphne, Harper dryly observes that she and Ethan are their new “white-passing diverse friends.”
Like April, Harper wields sarcasm as a weapon, but it’s not really working anymore. She’s smarter than everyone around her, especially in a place as crammed with rich idiots as the White Lotus, and all it brings her is misery. But in a way, that misery is an index of the fact that she hasn’t given up—not even on her marriage, which at various points in the season seemed as if it were beyond repair. Like the characters Plaza has played before her, Harper has learned that there’s always a chance to save your life and a chance to ruin it, that futures aren’t guaranteed, but neither are they dead-ended. All you can do is keep pushing on and hope you don’t die a stupid, embarrassing death before you figure it out. We may not know where her character is headed after Sicily, but it’s a safe bet that wherever Plaza goes, a good chunk of her generation will find themselves right there beside her.