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Against Type 

Two independent films give their lead actors a fresh look.

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click to enlarge Aubrey Plaza - VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT
  • Vertical Entertainment
  • Aubrey Plaza

If you have the kind of acting career where you're typecast, you're luckier than most; that means you've been working long enough, and successfully enough, that you're associated with playing a certain kind of character. That doesn't mean an actor who's found that sort of career isn't interested in stretching out, which usually means finding smaller-scale projects willing to take a chance on showcasing you outside of that box.

Aubrey Plaza decided to create those opportunities for herself, producing films that could give her roles beyond the sardonic Millennial persona she established on TV's Parks & Recreation and in early movie parts going back to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The latest is Emily the Criminal, in which Plaza plays Emily Benetto, a struggling would-be artist in Los Angeles barely keeping ahead of her bills with a catering job. A co-worker eventually tips her off to another opportunity: doing the leg work in a well-organized credit-card fraud operation run by Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his cousin. And what begins as a one-off gig starts to expand as Emily proves skilled at the job.

While it's clear that writer/director John Patton Ford is at least somewhat interested in the generational factors—huge student-loan debts, unpaid internships, etc.—that can lead someone like Emily to decide a straight life is for suckers, he also builds a great flawed character for Plaza to inhabit. The felony on her record that affects her job prospects might be revealed ultimately as a justifiable offense, but it's also clear that Emily isn't always great at decision-making, as we see in a sharp cut from "just a glass of wine" to doing blow in a bathroom.

That makes for a terrific showcase for Plaza, who presents a different angle on a character that could easily have been a stock "girl who gets in over her head." While cinematographer Jeff Bierman lays down some underworld blues to counter the sunny Southern California setting, Plaza gives Emily a ferocity and determination that are a far cry from deadpan comedy. Ford might make it a little too easy to let Emily off the hook for her moral lapses, but Plaza seems more than content to embrace them.

  • Bleecker Street Films
  • Dale Dickey

Dale Dickey
Wes Studi
Rated PG
Available Aug. 12 in theaters

Dale Dickey might be a less familiar face to those who don't know where to look, but she too has a "type," the kind of hard-edged character you'd find hanging out in a bar like in Iron Man 3, or living a dangerous life like in Winter's Bone. That makes it a particular turn for Max Walker-Silverman's A Love Song to cast her as a romantic lead. She plays Faye, a widow who has come to a lakeside campground in Colorado hoping that a correspondence with Lito (Wes Studi), an old high-school classmate (and maybe more), will result in a reunion.

Walker-Silverman has the opportunity for a very simple and effective character study, except that he keeps getting in his own way. It's not exactly subtle at the outset when he focuses on images of wildflowers growing out of the parched landscape; yes indeed, we can find beauty in unlikely places, we get it. There are similarly distracting quirk-flourishes at regular intervals throughout, from the visits Faye gets from a quintet of mostly-mute siblings, to Faye's habit of waking up to name the call of the bird she's hearing.

When A Love Song actually does get down to the business of its central relationship, however, it's got a lot going for it. Dickey and Studi share the kind of casual chemistry that can exist between people who were once close even after decades apart, but the real pleasures come mostly from watching Dickey get a chance to play someone who's profoundly vulnerable; there are wonderful moments when she coils in expectation of Lito's possible impending arrival, or when the look on her face says everything about what it's like to contemplate offering someone intimacy. Even if the filmmaker doesn't always know that he should focus on the great actor he has at his disposal, Dickey makes it clear that when she got this kind of rare opportunity to show her range, she was going to give it everything she had.

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