Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon releases the film in theaters on Friday, May 20, with an Amazon Prime Video streaming release to follow on Friday, May 27.
The great thing about “Emergency” — a satirical college comedy from “R#J” director Carey Williams — is its skillful balance between laughs and nerves, which it centers not only in equal measure, but often at the same time and without compromising either one. A tale of two Black college seniors, Sean (R.J. Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), at the mostly white Buchanan University, the film begins with a grand plan for a legendary night of party-hopping (aptly named “The Legendary Tour”) before the duo graduates. However, it soon devolves into a thrilling comedy of errors when the two best friends and their Latino housemate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) discover a drunk white girl (Maddie Nichols), in what appears to be a makeshift cardboard dress, passed out on their floor. A random happenstance, though one that won’t look good for any of them should they decide to call the cops.
From a script by K.D. Dávila, who also penned Williams’ 2018 short of the same name, the film is at once whip-smart in its plot and dialogue, and intentionally languid in its unfurling. It’s far more reserved than the average American studio college escapade, though its measured pacing allows more room for its sudden bursts of energy to stand out. It begins with a class on hate-speech, in which Sean and Kunle’s white British teacher discusses the N-word, which she not only projects on a screen in enormous font, but also says out loud a myriad times (though she offers several trigger warnings as a preface). The circumstance is both awkward in its true-to-life absurdity and raucously funny, given Sean and Kunle’s uncomfortable reactions in the back row.
The campus politics of speech are just one of several prevalent issues slotted neatly into the backdrop, so the film doesn’t linger on them for too long. While it has hints of Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” it is first and foremost an American party comedy — in the vein of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and the like — a largely white genre, but one the filmmakers seem to reflect on as they adjust their own approach to various scenarios and misunderstandings that may seem textually familiar.
For instance, the two leads initially seem cut from broad archetypes — Kunle is scientifically minded, awkward around girls, and dislikes parties; Sean is the opposite in all three regards — but it soon becomes apparent, through their respective forms of confidence and high-strung insecurity, that Dávila and Williams aren’t interested in rehashing familiar binaries. They would rather present a more complex friendship that allows them both to play off each other with a sense of intimacy, leading to realistic, character-centric banter (rather than punchlines composed of one-note insults). The debate that Sean and Kunle begin with each other over their teacher’s use of the N-word may not carry through the film directly, but it sets the stage for their interpersonal dynamic to slowly and surely come apart at the seams.
The sheltered Kunle, who comes from a family of immigrant doctors, is an overachiever saddled with the responsibility of “Black excellence” by his peers. He attempts to unpack the classroom oddity with a calculated, academic approach. Meanwhile, the outgoing Sean brings a more street-smart worldliness to the topic, which soon ricochets the duo into a much broader debate — one that eventually informs what they choose to do (and just as importantly, what they choose not to do) when the film’s main plot kicks into motion.
They decide — or rather, Sean decides, and Kunle and Carlos reluctantly agree — that the best course of action is to avoid police entanglements. Intead, they try to help the unconscious stranger in a way that also serves their party plans, affording them the chance at becoming the first Black students at Buchanan to hit all seven frat parties in one evening, thus catapulting them to their college’s tongue-in-cheek “Hall of Firsts” in the Black Student Union. That it’s not just partying for partying’s sake makes the film more dramatically intriguing.
As Sean, Kunle and Carlos drive from house to house while trying to help their new compatriot, a parallel story emerges, when the girl’s sister (Sabrina Carpenter) and her friends (Madison Thompson and Diego Abraham) — all of them white or white passing — try to track her down, and end up tailing the trio around campus. As the misunderstandings build, so too does the danger of how one might perceive the optics from afar, and the looming threat of police involvement never goes away. Though what keeps the film’s clashing comedic and dramatic tones from ever derailing the story is each lead performance.
As Sean, Cyler plays against the more reserved type that introduced him to mainstream audiences in “Power Rangers” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” He arrives with a self-assured boisterousness, but one that soon gives way to layered fears and insecurities about his future. Meanwhile, Watkins is caught in a constant battle over how best to navigate not only the situation, but the worlds of academic whiteness and lived Blackness, as their ill-conceived plan threatens to eject him from the former, while threatening his uneasy place in the latter.
Chacon is just as magnetic as Carlos, a well-meaning, puppy-dog-eyed gamer and third wheel to the leading friendship — he’s good at diffusing situations, but he’s also forced to bear the brunt of Sean and Kunle’s frustrations — but the film’s secret weapon may very well be Nichols, as a white-girl-wasted descendant of Terry Kiser in “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Whether her job is to drunkenly prat-fall, puke up what appears to be a birthday cake mixture, or mumble incoherently in the corner of the frame, she’s an absolute treat to watch. She even adds a touching secondary story about the character’s own insecurities, and her relationship with her sister, the few times she’s semi-lucid — though these moments also lead to further complications for the trio, given her intoxicated misunderstanding of events.
“Emergency” subverts a traditionally white mode of American party comedy by injecting it with realistic tension. It asks what pragmatism even looks like when systems of supposed assistance function at their optimum by criminalizing people, and it explores this vital question in the form of a hilarious and increasingly dysfunctional friendship, whose dynamic is rooted in equally vital ruminations on Blackness at the precipice of adulthood. Every interaction is rip-roaringly funny — even the more disquieting ones — resulting in a film where you can’t help but laugh at the riveting absurdity.
“Emergency” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon will release it later this year.