Emergency premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is competing in the festival’s U.S Dramatic competition.
Carey Williams’ 2018 film Emergency won Sundance’s Special Jury Prize for short-form filmmaking. He adapted this short, with KD Davila serving as screenwriter, into a feature film of the same name. The film is one part buddy comedy, one part coming-of-age movie, and one part drama reflecting on multiple tensions present in the American conscious. If this sounds like three things which do not go together, you aren’t wrong. The extent to which one buys into the tonal tightrope walk Emergency is attempting is crucial to the enjoyment of the film.
I bought in. Perhaps not hook, line, and sinker. But taking this film on its own terms, following it through its kinks and lumps, I was met with a genuinely energized and emotional experience.
Two college students nearing graduation, Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler), could fall into traditional “odd couple” archetypes. Kunle is relatively buttoned down, intent on finishing his studies and attending graduate school at Princeton. Sean, meanwhile, appears more interested in drugs and alcohol than his studies. Instead of relying on tired character tropes, though, the script finds meaningful places of intersection between the two young men, selling their friendship while providing them individual motivations.
The film efficiently sets these dynamics up while hinting at a possible trajectory for the plot. Sean is driven to undertake the “Legendary Tour,” a party crawl across fraternity row, with his best friend, a feat which he thinks will get them on the “Wall of Firsts” in the Black Student Union. An early montage showcases the triumphant night of partying which may ensue, so long as they stick to a tight schedule. The scene essentially begs us to ask, what could possibly go wrong?
Another early scene hints at these darker possibilities. A sociology lecture surrounding hate speech, led by a white, British professor, establishes uncomfortable tensions between the academy’s call for open, challenging dialogue and racial insensitivity. The professor, addressing (and liberally using) the N-word, turns to Kunle and Sean, the only black students in the class, to ask for their thoughts, drawing the eyes of everyone in the classroom, isolating them as racialized others.
The tones of the two scenes merge just before Kunle and Sean are able to embark on their night of fun. Returning to their house to change, they discover an unconscious woman on their living room floor. Kunle, Sean, and their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) debate whether they should call 911. It is not that they have no interest in helping, it is that they are afraid of how the police would view their situation. They decide not to put themselves in danger by involving the police, and instead plan to take the intoxicated woman back to the party she came from.
What follows is an unraveling of the night, various misunderstandings, and uncomfortable circumstances growing more dire as the plot progresses. The film uses these tense developments to comment on the ramifications of police brutality and the flimsy nature of performative allyship (one of the most damning juxtapositions is a white couple threatening to call the police on the three students for loitering in the street and the Black Lives Matter sign planted in their front yard).
The initial setup for a comedy falls away to reveal a gravely serious drama, which chugs along until it reaches a familiar second act turn in which the three central characters’ relationships unravel in fits of bickering. This moment comes off fairly contrived, but it comes with an emotional payoff near the end of the film which I found effective.
And it is the film’s final 20 minutes or so which frame this rollercoaster of a film as being something greater than merely an experiment in shifting tonal registers. Suffice it to say that these final few scenes, which deliver a heart-in-your-throat climax and a pathos-driven coda, provide a glimpse at the unseen (and rarely addressed) traumas that proceed from a police encounter.
Emergency is a confident and lively film that aims to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. Not every element within entirely coheres, but if one accepts the tonal turbulence, there is a lot of humor and heart (and tension) in this film. At the very least, it should rank pretty high up on the list of best “college party” films, just not for the reasons you might expect.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)