A film review by Craig J. Koban June 5, 2022

EMERGENCY jjj
 

2022, R, 105 mins.

Donald Watkins as Kunle  /  RJ Cyler as Sean  /  Sebastian Chacon as Carlos  /  Sabrina Carpenter as Maddy  /  Maddie Nichols as Emma  /  Madison Thompson as Alice  /  Diego Abraham as Rafael  /  

Directed by Carey Williams  /  Written by K.D. Davila

 

 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

EMERGENCY is the kind of film that starts out one way and makes you think it's adhering to one specific comedic genre, but as it develops and careens towards its final act it becomes something wholly darker, compelling, and timely.  

Directed with a surefire hand by Carey Williams and sensitively written K.D. Davila, EMERGENCY is based on their own 2018 Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize winning short film, and based on its success the pair decided to adapt it to a feature length film.  There are times when the film feels like it's struggling to validate a longer length, and there are perhaps too many characters vying for attention when they're not on a collision course with one another.  Yet, EMERGENCY stands tall by the way it intriguingly subverts our very expectations: Initially, this film seems like it's going to be yet another on a long list of stoner college comedies, but then segues into macabre territory.  Imagine ROAD TRIP morphed with WEEKEND AT BERNIES and further cross pollinated with AFTER HOURS and you'll kind of get the idea.  That sounds like a weird hodgepodge...but hear me out.   

The film opens modestly enough.  It's nearing the end of the school year when we meet up with college students Sean (R.J. Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), and as most post-secondary students do with ample free time on the horizon they try to map out what kind of partying they can get into with the evening ahead.  Both seem like polar opposites: Kunle is a well off, intelligent, and ambitious student that wishes to get into Harvard, whereas Sean is the motormouthed troublemaker of the two and is focusing all his attention and energy on plotting out their "Legendary Tour" (simply put, a massive pub crawl through all of the campus' most happening parties).  Despite seeming like they come from different walks of life, Sean and Kunle are lifelong brommates that would take a bullet for one another at the drop of a hat, but the latter seems more concerned about his educational future and making a name for himself.   

Their night gets off to an awfully rocky start when they return home to collect some things and are shocked when they discover a passed out and potentially drunk/drug overdosed woman on the floor (Maddie Nichols).  Their oblivious and game obsessed roommate in Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) is at a loss for words as to what happened to this girl, leaving the traumatized students struggling to plot their next appropriate move.  One of them thinks that calling the cops is in order, but Sean matter-of-factly retorts that the optics of this situation - an intoxicated and unconscious white girl in their dwelling with three men of color hovering over her - would appear instantly suspicious to any potential racially profiling police officers, so they unilaterally nix that idea.  Being too deathly afraid to reach out to law enforcement for fear of horrible repercussions, the lads decide to take the girl out of the apartment and into their car so they can do some sleuthing as to who she is and how she ended up at their pad.  Concurrent to all of this is the ordeal of the girl's sister in Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter), who joins her BFF in Alice (Madison Thompson) and fellow friend Rafael (Diego Abraham) to go on their own nocturnal mission to locate Maddy's lost sibling by attempting to track her location  via her smart phone.  Predictable wackiness - and some unpredictable detours - befall all of these aforementioned characters. 

 

 

As referenced, the opening stages of EMERGENCY certainly appears to be made up of the spare parts of many other wacky college comedies, but it generates many well earned and large laughs as it progresses.  One early scene is cringe inducingly amusing, which shows Sean and Kunle attending a college lecture by an bizarrely tone deaf professor that's trying to teach a course on hate crime and then smugly flashes the N-word on her projector and asks the class why it's such an awful word.  Sean hysterically and incredulously deadpan whispers to Kunle in class, "Is that even allowed?!  Ask her why is she teaching a class about some shit she doesn't know shit about," to which he responds, "Well, it's on the syllabus."  Moments of social unease like this are equal parts painful and funny, not to mention some of the other wild hijacks that this pair of black students find themselves in, like, for instance, being chased by racist white fratboys or an unnervingly paranoid white couple filming them during a random stop.  Great comedies are frequently born out of the unfortunate expense of their troubled characters, and EMERGENCY is no exception. 

But, Williams and Davila have another creative agenda with this college comedy, especially for the way their film slowly, but surely taps into the day-to-day horrors of being a minority in the modern world.  The whole highly inconvenient dilemma that Sean, Kunle and Carlos find themselves in becomes increasingly complicated when they simply can't call the police for help.  If they were white, this film would essentially be over at the halfway point, but because these characters are black and Latino respectively, they realize that a simple call to the police will not simply end well at all.  Their nearly impossible mission is to get this coked out white woman to an emergency room in the most discrete manner possible and without alerting attention to anyone.  The college comedy genre trappings clearly permeate this picture, but EMERGENCY adeptly becomes increasingly laced with real world thriller elements, not to mention some timely social/political commentary about the trials and tribulations of these men - and countless others like them - in America.  Sean, Kunle, and Carlos are good people that get into the worst kind of trouble that would be less of a burdensome ordeal if their skin color were different.   

Of course, the ugly elephant in the room for this hapless trio is their perceived fear of the ruthless unfairness of law enforcement for people of their ilk.  The manner that EMERGENCY interlinks race relations with police brutality gives the film a horrifying undercurrent that chiefly elevates it above the contrivances of other college caper comedies.  There's an inherent sadness to the film as well, especially when viewers realize that these characters' intense fear of the cops stymies them when it comes to making rational decisions to get them out of their collective mess.  And it's not just from their perspective either, which is made paramount when the white girl's sister starts to pick up the pieces of her situation too.  To Maddy looking from the outside in, she sees her passed out sister in a car with three suspicious looking people of color.  And when all of these characters unavoidably come together - and with the police involved too - EMERGENCY manages to go down both familiar paths while covering sobering thematic terrain.  Then there's a dexterous manner that Williams and Davila further inject a class consciousness into their narrative.  The film is a power play of differing world views between Sean and Kunle.  Sean is the cynical pragmatist that - based on a hard life of bad experiences with cops - is afraid of how their night will end.  Kunle is well meaning and book smart, but lacks the street smarts to comprehend what being pulled over by the cops will mean and, rather naively, thinks cooler heads will prevail.  The final sections of EMERGENCY leads to - without spoiling anything - one of them having a massive shift in prerogative. 

The rock solid casting and top tier performances of Cyler and Watkins confidently anchor this film, and both effectively tap into these complicated and tricky roles.  In a lesser film, Sean and Kunle would be caricatured stereotypes - the hedonistic party animal and the book worm dweeb - but these actors imbue considerable weighty depth into these characters.  I think, though, that EMERGENCY is a bit of a strained endurance test at its length and seems desperate at times to pad its story to justify being transformed from a short to feature length film.  That, and a lot of the film features a lot of characters fighting and screaming with one another, which sometimes makes for a grating watch and may test the patience of some filmgoers.  For some of its creative unevenness, EMERGENCY still emerges as an assured piece that skillfully migrates in and out of many divergent tones throughout, shifting from farcical comedy to searing drama and intense social thriller in equal measure.  Very few films that I've seen as of late straddle between being both funny and disturbing, but EMERGENCY walks that highly delicate line by making us laugh and think strongly about its themes.  And that's frankly more ambitious minded than most college comedies offer up.  

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