Emergency review – endearing yet stressful contemporary campus caper

Emergency, a comedy thriller about three college friends – two Black, one Latino – navigating a downpour of bad optics and decisions, traffics in several established lanes: the raucous one-last-epic-party romp a la Booksmart, where everything that can escalate will in the course of a single night; the hijinks-filled buddy road trip comedy albeit this time around campus; and the socially aware thriller in the shadow of Get Out, where every move is weighted by the looming threat of anti-Black racism in America. In other words, a ride somehow both warm and stressful, and an inviting mashup of familiar beats made fresh by a trio of grounded, endearing performances.

The film, adapted from the 2018 Sundance short by screenwriter KD Dávila and director Carey Williams with distribution by Amazon, opens in party comedy mode: best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) determined to become the first Black students at fictional Buchanan College to complete a “legendary tour” of exclusive frat parties. The two are a classic yin-yang: Kunle the strait-laced and straight-A striver studying biology (the “Barack Obama of fungus”, Sean ribs), Sean the laid-back stoner with zero future plan but a tight party schedule.

They’re also minority students in a mostly white space. Dávila has a sharp ear for the self-aggrandizing paternalism of liberal arts colleges – in the opening minutes, a white British professor of “blasphemy and taboos” repeats the N-word in class and dials in on Kunle and Sean for their response in a “safe space”; after class, a white classmate offers to take up their “cause” at student council. But where some campus films could turn didactic, Emergency smartly sticks to the bristled, deep friendship behind the partying: an aimless Sean wants to make his mark on Buchanan before he leaves, and Kunle, secretly considering a PhD at Princeton that would separate them, doesn’t want to disappoint Sean.

When the two return home to pre-game and find a white girl (Maddie Nichols) passed out facedown in their living room, Kunle, the voice of reason, suggests they call 911. Sean, stoned and buzzed, balks at calling authorities. Two Black guys and their stoner Mexican-American roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) with an unconscious blonde girl in a house that reeks of weed? What are the odds they’ll be believed? The specter of police misreading a situation to potentially dangerous ends is a Chekhov’s gun – the more strenuously the trio tries to avoid it through increasingly paranoid but well-intentioned means, the more they court suspicion and reason to find themselves apprehended by officers likely to afford them the least possible generosity.

Compounding the risk is Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter), a ticking timebomb of concern, self-absorption and explosive indignation, looking for her lost sister Emma with friend Alice (Madison Thompson), who is white, and Alice’s white-passing party crush (Diego Abraham) succinctly described as “from my Arab-Israeli conflict seminar!” Dávila’s script and Williams’s tight direction deftly render the group as both a lifeline on a collision course with the boys, and a trap – their concern is legitimate, their biases dangerous.

By the film’s midpoint, the accumulation of miscommunications, wrong place wrong time coincidences, and simply idiotic decisions begins to wear; Emergency is a comedy of errors whose steep price never escapes awareness, including that Emma clearly needs help, and at a certain point I found myself silently pleading with Sean, Kunle and Carlos to just call for help already. But thanks to standout lead performances, you can never fully blame one character for holding out on sense for plot’s sake. Cyler, as Sean, embodies a different type of American Blackness than Kunle, the son of immigrant doctors dressed somewhere between country club and substitute teacher. Sean is full Gen Z, slang-inflected speech and vape in hand, and Cyler plays his pitched, paranoid awareness of the racial sinkholes in every situation as a bruise clearly formed by personal experience.

A lesser film would have careened into the sensational or bluntly traumatic as the plot steps on the gas and both the optics and Emma’s prognosis worsen, but Emergency sticks the landing. Like Get Out, it relies more on the specter of anti-Black policing than actual violence; simply visualizing a potential tragedy, understanding its possibility, is enough. There’s still catastrophe. In the film’s climax, Williams assumes Kunle’s perspective for a gut-punch, slow-motion shattering of innocence. Watkins is excellent at conveying the nuclear fallout of Kunle’s disillusionment; in a standout conclusion, Williams hovers the camera on his face, and the waves of emotional devastation – humiliation, shock, fear, disappointment at the futility of truth against decades of biases – are their own kind of searing death.

But darkness and light go hand in hand in Emergency, which also features one of the sweetest straight male friendship heart-to-hearts I’ve seen on screen in awhile. Emergency toggles between styles, from playful to suspenseful and back, but Kunle and Sean remain consistent anchors throughout, as two young men carrying the weight of prejudices but buoyed up by a different inescapable, mutable force: a best friendship in flux but in no need of a 911 call.

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