Carey Williams’ sophomore effort Emergency — working off a screenplay by KD Dávila — revolves around best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler). They’re Black students nearing graduation, who are anticipating completing an epic party crawl around campus. Sean is your classic party hardy college student, not as concerned with his future as much as he’s worried about if he’ll have enough time to pregame before marathoning seven different parties in the same night. Kunle is a different breed. He’s incredibly smart and about to go to Princeton to continue his research into bacteria and fungi.
Their plans for a debaucherous evening come to a screeching halt the moment they return find a young, unconscious white girl in their living room floor, unbeknownst to their other roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon). The woman appears to be drugged, fades in-and-out of consciousness, and can’t even utter her own name. Kunle wants to call the police. Sean knows there’s likely no way to sell the possibility that two Black kids are innocent parties when an underage white girl lies motionless in their apartment.
After much debating and arguing, the three decide to take her to the hospital themselves. Eventually, they learn the young girl’s name is Emma (Maddie Nichols), who was brought on campus by her irresponsible sister (pop singer Sabrina Carpenter), who is desperately trying to find her using the tracking device on their phone. Kunle, Sean, and Carlos hop in Kunle’s van — which has a busted taillight, making them an even greater target for unwanted attention — en route to the hospital, forced to take backroads in effort to avoid the police.
Williams — whose debut feature, R#J, was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet for the social media era — has something of a template on which to work. This is another distinctly modern film casting a light on America’s complex race relations ala Blindspotting. Dávila’s screenplay is a lofty one, infusing comedic, dramatic, and thriller elements into the story. Williams is mostly tactile in juggling the variety of tonal shifts, which sometimes happen at the drop of a hat.
Emergency simply tries to do too much, resulting in being average as opposed to great. It tries to handle themes of police brutality and racial bias, all while presenting the irony that characters who have been systematically dehumanized might inadvertently cost another person’s life while trying to preserve their own. Its focus ends up being broad, effectively limiting a lot of its potency to simple acknowledgements of real-world injustices.
The third act shines as things get all too real after a lot of mishandled comedy in the midsection. Emergency is never as funny as it wants to be largely because in the realm of comedy it never feels like it finds its own voice. For as much as people griped that Booksmart was a copy of Superbad, Emergency sometimes plays like a remake of the Judd Apatow-produced classic — right down to Kunle keeping his college acceptance a secret from his best friend. Dávila is too bound to preexisting properties to find his own voice, even if he is making a justifiable effort to make this material more palatable for the casual viewer given the realistic scenario it portrays.
The actors are blameless in the matter. Most rise to the occasion and take on the challenge of a movie all-but-defined by its many tonal shifts. Cyler, who shined in last year’s The Harder They Fall, not to mention Me and Earl and the Dying Girl before that, and Watkins are an amiable, opposites-attract duo. When the third act demands a serious reality check for all involved, coupled with an emotional finale, it’s made great thanks to their prowess. Chacon, however, is rendered irritating by writing that hamfists him into the McLovin archetype. Carlos isn’t a hapless dope, but he’s Napoleon Dynamite compared to the realistic characterization of Kunle and Sean.
Alas, Emergency falls short and not due to its ambitious nature. The mishandled comedy feels more like dead weight on an already meaty project. Helping the viewer retain interest in spite of its shortcomings is Michael Dallatorre’s ultra-cool cinematography, which is saturated in dark colors that make the blacklighting during the party scenes pop. This is a movie with a lot of flavor. It’s also a movie that’s a lot of a lot.
NOTE: Emergency is now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
Starring: Donald Elise Watkins, RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon, and Sabrina Carpenter. Directed by: Carey Williams.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!