Courtesy: John Patton Ford
In the new film “Emily the Criminal”, the main character, played by actress Aubrey Plaza, is almost always in a state of fear.
There are times when Emily’s fear melts away: after one of her successful burglaries, when she paints in her apartment to classical music, or when she falls in love with Youcef (Theo Rossi), who introduced her to the world of credit card fraud. But these reprieves are always brief, and soon the fear returns. It’s largely because of another constant in Emily’s life: her $70,000 student debt.
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The paltry wages from her food delivery job barely allow her to meet the interest that accrues 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 great motivation of human beings,” said John Patton Ford, 40, the film’s screenwriter and director. “We do almost 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 it.”
I spoke with Ford – whose film was the New York Times critic’s pick and won 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 on the subject.
The film debuted in theaters in August, just days before President Joe Biden revealed his highly anticipated plan to forgive much of Americans’ student loan debt. Even if the plan survives Republican challenges, outstanding student debt will still exceed $1 trillion, and an additional 5 million Americans borrow for their education each year.
For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, the discussion below — which has been edited and condensed for clarity — includes spoilers.
Annie Nova: From the beginning of the film, Emily is in a really desperate financial situation. Why did you make his student debt such a big part of his panic?
John Patton Ford: Personal experience. I went to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and graduated in 2009 with about $93,000 in debt. Every decision came down to this: can I fly to visit my family during the holidays? Can I afford to have coffee with a friend? It’s been running pretty much my whole life. And I knew I was not alone in this crisis. There are tens of millions of Americans going through the same thing, but I had never seen a movie about it.
AN: Have you already repaid your debt?
JPF: I no longer have any debt, but it took a miracle. Getting a career as a screenwriter is an absolute miracle. I think there are about the same number of people in the Writers Guild of America as there are players in Major League Baseball. And even then, I was unable to repay the debt. We had to become a director and make a first film, which is astronomically difficult. My sister went to medical school—she’s an anesthesiologist—and she’s been working for about 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 have you learned?
JPF: It all really started in 1980 when Ronald Reagan deregulated the economy so big corporations could find a way not to pay their taxes. And now, 40 years later, the net result is that the government is no longer raising the tax revenue it used to. They can’t subsidize education, so we’re offloading the spending to people who go into massive debt to go to school.
It happened so slowly that we didn’t really take into account the fact that we are the only country in the western world that has this system. No other country would tolerate this. If this happened for a single day in France, there would be mass protests. They had burned down buildings.
AN: I found it really interesting that you made Emily a painter – and a talented one too. But his way of life leaves him little room to make art. What is the film trying to say about the impacts of student debt on artists?
JPF: We have set up a society that does not make life easier for artists. So many of the artistic innovations that have happened over the years have happened because artists were in a society that supported or empowered them. Would the Beatles have existed if not for the strong social programs in England in the 1950s that allowed them not to work full time or that made university studies so inexpensive? They were able to take lessons and then go home and train as a group. 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 that we will never be able to take advantage of as a society is tragic.
AN: There are so many things you could have had Emily do to try to pay off her student debt. Why did you get him 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 rip me off, I’m going to rip somebody else off. .’ As soon as you lose faith in things, you kind of become as bad as the system.
AN: I really liked the scene where Youcef talks about the kind of house he wants to live in one day, with an open kitchen. And then later, he is thrilled to introduce Emily to her mother. Why make this person, involved in all these financial crimes, also have these very ordinary desires and dreams?
JPF: This says a lot about our view of what is realistic these days. As someone living in Los Angeles, I can tell you that you can’t own a house here unless you’re a millionaire or some kind of criminal. You start making calculations, and you suddenly say to yourself, “Yeah. I’m willing to commit credit card fraud in order to throw a grenade into the system so I can actually own something. It just seemed like a more down-to-earth reason to do things.
AN: At the end of the film, Emily runs her own credit card system in South America. It feels like a win in that she wasn’t caught and is 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 finding out what they’re good at, what they like to do, and what they’ll likely continue to do. 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 realizes it’s just not enough. I wanted to end where Emily finally gets what she thinks she wants: she really likes being the boss of things, and art never allowed her to do that, but this new life of crime did. I have this last scene to show his full progression as a character.
AN: How can movies shine a light on the student loan crisis in a way that other media can’t?
JPF: Towards the end of his life, someone asked Roger Ebert to define a film. And he said, “A machine that creates empathy.” I always thought that was a pretty good answer. Movies have a superpower that is hard to compare with other media. They very quickly get the audience to sympathize with the central character and feel what that person is feeling.