In the new thriller Emily the Criminal, director John Patton Ford deals with the student loan crisis

emily the criminal

Courtesy: John Patton Ford

In the new movie “Emily the Criminal,” the title character, played by actress Aubrey Plaza, is almost always in a state of fear.

There are moments when Emily’s fear rises: after one of her successful heists, when she paints in her apartment to classical music or when she falls in love with Joseph (Theo Rossi), who introduces her to the world of credit card fraud. But these postponements are always short, and soon the fear returns. This is largely due to another constant in Emily’s life: $70,000 in student debt.

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The pitfalls of her food delivery job barely allow her to keep up with the interest accruing on her student debt each month. So Emily reinvents herself as a criminal, buying expensive electronics with stolen credit cards, in pursuit of a less predictable life.

“I think fear is the biggest motivator for humans,” said John Patton Ford, screenwriter and director of the movie, John Patton Ford, 40. “We do almost everything out of fear. The only reason anyone would do what they do is because they are terribly afraid of the consequences of not doing it.”

I spoke with Ford—whose film was a critics’ choice for the New York Times and won awards at the Annapolis Film Festival and 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 on the subject.

The movie premiered in theaters in August, just days before President Joe Biden revealed his highly anticipated plan to waive a significant portion of Americans’ student loan debt. Even if the plan survives Republican challenges, outstanding student loan debt will still exceed $1 trillion, and each year it borrows an additional 5 million Americans for their education.

For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, the discussion below – which has been edited and condensed for clarity – includes spoilers.

Annie Nova: Since the beginning of the movie, Emily has been in a really miserable financial situation. Why has her student debt made such a big part of her panic?

John Button Ford: Personal experience. She went to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, graduating in 2009 with a debt of about $93,000. Every decision came about: Can I go home to visit my family during the holidays? Can I afford to have coffee with a friend? My whole life has been pretty much turned around. And I knew I wasn’t alone in this crisis. There are tens of millions of Americans dealing with the same thing, but I’ve never seen a movie about it.

AN: Have you paid off the debt now?

JPF: I no longer have debt, but it took a miracle. Getting a screenwriting career is an absolute miracle. I think there are just as many people in the Writers Guild of America as there are Major League Baseball players. And even then, I couldn’t pay the debts. It took being a director and making your first movie, which is astronomically challenging. My sister went to medical school – she’s an anesthesiologist – and she’s been working for 15 years, and she’s still paying off her student debt.

“No other country can tolerate this”

AN: Have you researched the student loan crisis for the movie? what did you learn?

JPF: It really began in 1980 when Ronald Reagan liberalized the economy so that big companies could find a way to not pay their taxes. And now, 40 years later, the net result is that the government is no longer making the tax revenue it used to. They are unable to support education, and so we are handing over the expenses to the people who now owe huge amounts of debt to go to school.

This happened so slowly that we did not take into account the fact that we are the only country in the Western world that has this system. No other country will tolerate this. If this happens for one day in France, there will be mass protests. They set fire to the buildings.

AN: I found it really exciting that you made Emily an illustrator – and a talented illustrator too. But her lifestyle does not leave her much room for making art. What is the movie trying to say about the effects of student debt on artists?

JPF: We’ve created a community that doesn’t make it easy for artists. Many of the artistic innovations that have occurred over the years have occurred because the artists were in a community that supported or empowered them. Would the Beatles have existed without the powerful social programs in 1950s England that allowed them not to work full time or that made it cheap to go to college? They had to take lessons, then go home and train as a band. But if the Beatles had $100,000 in student debt, they would be working in a coal mine. The amount of talent that is not being developed today that we as a society will not profit from is tragic.

Ann: There are a lot of things Emily could have done to try to pay off her student debt. Why did you get her involved in credit card fraud?

JPF: I think the more disenfranchised you are with the way things work, the more nihilistic you feel, and you can become like, “Well, if they’re tearing me apart, I’m going to tear someone else apart.” The moment you lose faith in things, you become kind of as bad as the system.

AN: I really liked the scene where Youssef talks about the kind of house he wants to live in one day, with an open kitchen. And then, he was excited to introduce Emily to his mom. Why does this person, who is 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 Los Angeles, I can tell you that you can’t own a home here unless you are a millionaire or some kind of criminal. You start doing the math, and you suddenly go, “Yeah. I’m willing to commit a credit card fraud in order to throw a grenade into the system so I can actually own something. That just seems to be a more relevant and realistic reason to do things.”

AN: At the end of the movie, Emily runs her own credit card scheme in South America. It feels like a victory because she was not caught and she is still alive, but she is also still trapped in this dangerous and dangerous episode.

JPF: The story in the end is a personal study. It’s about someone finding out what they are good at, what they like to do, and what they are likely to keep doing. It is less a story of coming of age than a thriller. Emily gets this opportunity to go to a foreign country and maybe focus on art, but later realizes that’s not enough. I wanted to end it where Emily finally gets what she thinks she wants: she really loves being the boss of things, art has never enabled her to do that but this new life of crime does. I have this last scene to show her full progress as a character.

AN: How can films highlight the student loan crisis in a way that other media cannot?

JPF: Near the end of his life, someone asked Roger Ebert to select a movie. He said, “A machine that creates empathy.” I always thought this was a good answer. Movies have a superpower that is hard to compare to other media. They quickly make the audience sympathize with the central character and feel what that person is feeling.

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