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Gray Areas: Chagrin producer hopes ‘Emily’ attracts moviegoers

Andy Gray

There’s a scene late in the movie “Emily the Criminal” that should be taught in economics classes.

The title character, played by Aubrey Plaza, finally gets an interview with a company that would let her use her talents as an artist, that would let her do something she loves instead of delivering food for a catering company.

But those jobs only are open to those who can “afford” to compete for them. And Emily, who is struggling to keep up with the interest on her $75,000 student loan debt as well as everyday living expenses, doesn’t have that privilege.

The feature directing debut by John Patton Ford, who also wrote the screenplay, makes a convincing argument that it’s easy to go down the slippery slope of criminal activity when the other path is covered in barbed wire.

While “Emily the Criminal” has plenty to say, it says it in the guise of a gritty ’70s-style crime story as Emily goes from “dummy shopper” looking to make a quick $200 to someone running her own phony credit card operation.

The movie, which opens Friday at several Cleveland-area theaters, is produced by Chagrin Falls native Tyler Davidson, who has a good eye for talent.

“Compliance” writer-director Craig Zobel went on to direct and executive produce the award-winning HBO series “Mare of Eastown.” “My Blind Brother” writer-director Sophie Goodhart is a writer-director-associate producer on Netflix’s “Sex Education.” Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts went from the Davidson-produced “The Kings of Summer” to the big-budget “Kong: Skull Island.” Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed “Take Shelter,” one of Davidson’s early producing credits, has gone on to make several critically acclaimed films, including Oscar nominee “Loving.”

When Davidson got the script for “Emily the Criminal,” “We loved it right away,” he said during a telephone interview. “It was a quick, fun read. I felt like it had something to say. Thematically, We felt like it would be a conversation piece and also entertaining. And I’m really ecstatic that I think that’s what we ended up with on screen, because you never know.”

Plaza is best known for her work on the series “Parks and Recreation,” but she has starred in several acclaimed independent films in recent years. She already was attached to the film as star and a producer when the script was sent to Davidson’s Low Spark Films.

With a thick Jersey accent and a willingness to wield a boxcutter or a stun gun to protect herself or her financial stash, Emily couldn’t be more different than the sarcastic millennial Plaza played on TV.

The movie was shot last summer on a tight 20-day schedule and premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival.

“It’s an indie film, but it does have some genre action sequences and some suspense scenes,” Davidson said. “I saw it for the first time on a big screen with an audience at our L.A. premiere, and it really validated my belief that this is a film deserving of a big-screen experience, so we’re thrilled that it’s coming out only in theaters, at least to start.”

Independent fare like “Emily the Criminal” has been most affected by the change in viewing habits accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Audiences have returned to theaters more quickly for superhero and high-action films like “Top Gun: Maverick” than they have for dramas.

“No one really knows what is going to be the future of theatrical,” Davidson said. “I think we’re seeing audiences are increasingly returning to theaters, even for independent films, but I think we feel that this film can be an interesting alternative to the Marvel fare but also potentially be for that same audience. Our hope is it has crossover appeal, that it doesn’t just feel like an arthouse film and that it has mainstream entertainment value.

If we can be positioned appropriately like that, I think we have a chance to attract an audience, even though it’s still a difficult time.”

“Emily the Criminal,” distributed by Roadside Attractions, opens this evening at Chagrin Cinemas, the Cedar-Lee Theatres in Cleveland Heights, Cinemark Valley View 24 and a couple of other Cleveland area locations.

Davidson will do post-film Q&As following the 7 p.m. screening tonight at the Cedar-Lee and the 7:20 p.m. show Friday in Chagrin.

Andy Gray is the entertainment editor of Ticket. Write to him a agray@tribtoday.com

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