Film Review – Emergency
It was supposed to be a fun night of partying between a couple of college roommates. The entire evening had been planned out minute by minute, so that they could squeeze as much fun as possible before daybreak. But from the get-go, things went horribly wrong. One thing led to another, which led to another, resulting in an odyssey of hijinks and soul defining revelations. By the end of the night, their outlook on the world, themselves, and each other have been altered. They confront the harsh realities of life and realize that society is not always what it seems, but often exactly what they expected it to be.
At first glance, Emergency (2022) looks like another comedy involving people getting into all sorts of trouble. There are certainly shades of Superbad (2007) floating around here. But writer K. D. Dávila and director Carey Williams add an entirely new perspective – adding a heavy dose of realism that makes this story more pressing and relevant than your usual farce. Expanding on their 2018 short film, Dávila and Williams examine the challenges of not only being young, but being a minority in the U.S. When you are a person in your late teens and early twenties, one of your main interests is in having fun and making memories with your friends. But as a person of color – especially for young men – there is an added dimension of racism. Finding your own path towards adulthood is tough, but having to be constantly aware of how you are perceived by others (particularly white people) makes life a constant grind.
That is what faces our protagonists. Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) are roommates on the verge of big life changes. Graduation is on the horizon, and they want to make the most of their remaining time. They plan to partake in the “Legendary Tour,” where they visit several parties in succession, each providing an excessive amount of alcohol. Their goal: become the first black students to finish the tour and become legends themselves. Sean and Kunle’s other roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) tags along as well, albeit unexpectedly. But before the trio can even step foot out of their house, they discover an unconscious white girl (Maddie Nichols) sprawled out on their living room floor.
With this situation, our first instinct is to call 911. However, Sean, Kunle, and Carlos understand that their predicament isn’t that simple. What will happen when authorities show up to see a passed out white girl surrounded by black and Hispanic men? There is a legitimate fear that the cops will assume that they were somehow responsible and blame them before learning the whole story. And so, they must navigate around dozens of landmines, trying to figure out a way to get the girl medical help without drawing the wrong kind of attention. Things get more complicated when the girl’s sister (Sabrina Carpenter) and her friends (Madison Thompson, Diego Abraham) show up hot on their trail.
Dávila’s writing and Williams’ direction amplify the mental gymnastics the characters go through. Sean, Kunle, and Carlos must think one step ahead not only for the safety of a stranger, but for themselves. They change their clothes to look less “threatening,” and they drive through backroads to avoid running into police vehicles. They even try contacting some of their white friends for help. The cinematography (Michael Dallatorre) pinpoints how small details can have large implications. When the taillight of Sean’s van gets broken, we already know the kind of risk that poses. Yard signs that say “Black Lives Matter” work as a contradiction when the three actually need assistance but don’t get it. These elements build the tension, dumping more obstacles as the night wears on.
Seeing these events unfold is like peering behind a social curtain. The real tragedy is that despite things going dramatically wrong, we can surmise that this is not the first time our characters have had these thoughts and fears. In a society where simply wearing a hoodie can get a person shot, young black and brown people are taught early on to mind what they say and do around others. The fact that kids must be taught how to handle a routine traffic stop magnifies how America is still very much tied to its racist history. These are the eggshells minorities must step over every single day. Emergency crystalizes this with urgency and skill. It takes the ideas of perception, discrimination, and racial bias and adds a ticking clock mechanic. Sean, Kunle, and Carlos don’t have the time to sit around and wait for the problem to resolve itself. Yet at the same time they can’t just carry the girl to their neighbors, lest they be mistaken for criminals.
With all that happens, the production still manages to make much of what we see really funny. The writing and performances define the central characters with unique traits. Kunle is the straight arrow, hyper focused on his studies and completing his thesis. Sean is the more spontaneous friend, focused on the Legendary Tour, partying the night away and hopefully getting laid. Occasionally, we jump into Sean’s mindset as he fantasizes over fellow student Asa (Summer Madison). Through his visions, Asa is surrounded by a hazy glow, indicating how head over heels he is for her. For Carlos, he exudes a friendly, socially awkward vibe – yet at the same time, he operates as the film’s beating heart. When the tension builds to a breaking point, it’s Carlos who acts as the calming force. Together, they interact like funny, dysfunctional brothers.
There have been many films centering around the racial dynamics of campus life. From School Daze (1988) to Dear White People (2014), a college setting can act as a strong allegory for the inequities of greater society. The fact that these issues still exist today is a testament of how much more growth there is left to achieve. Emergency sets itself apart in how it successfully balances its themes and tones. At any given moment I was laughing, on the edge of my seat, or moved to the verge of tears. The film’s great accomplishment is in how it infuses depth and emotion into its characters so that we may see them for exactly who they are: human beings.