Sundance Buddy Comedy Tackles Racism in America – The Hollywood Reporter

Brotherhood is the most fascinating thematic undercurrent of Emergency, an exciting but uneven feature from Carey Williams (R#J) about roommates caught in a peculiar bind.

Adapted from his 2017 short of the same name, the film expands on the original premise of three college seniors, two Black and the other Latino, debating whether to call the police after discovering a drunk white girl passed out on their living room floor. Pulling the anxious trio out of their claustrophobic apartment and throwing them headlong into the chaotic outside world, Williams’ latest project ups the stakes of this meditation on racism in America.


The Bottom Line

Entertaining enough, but only surface-deep.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Sabrina Carpenter, Maddie Nichols
Director: Carey Williams
Screenwriter: K.D. Davila

1 hour 45 minutes

Emergency opens with a sense of optimism. Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), best friends and roommates, are weeks away from graduating college. To appropriately celebrate their achievements, Sean, an African American stoner party boy, plans an epic night out for the duo, which includes lots of drinking, smoking and hopefully sleeping with their respective crushes.

The two boys could not be more different, leaving one curious about a friendship origin story that doesn’t get as much play as it deserves in the film. While Sean coasts through university, unimpressed by the pedestrian expectations of academia, Kunle, the son of African immigrants, fashions his identity around achievement. He’s a science nerd whose research has landed him a spot in a Princeton University graduate program.

Kunle and Sean’s easy, fraternal relationship buoys the film, which feels as much like a meditation on two friends wrestling with their differing world views as it is about the illusion of safety for Black people in America. Kunle, at once a pragmatist and model of stunning naïveté, thinks that keeping his head down and working hard means he can move through the world unencumbered. Sean, whose life the film suggests has been mired in harsh experiences, isn’t as easily lulled.

These perspectives guide their initial reactions when they find Emma (Maddie Nichols), a drunk white girl who broke into their shared apartment, lying passed out on their floor. Kunle wants to call 911 immediately. Sean thinks that’s the worst idea in the world. To help them break the tie, they conscript their third roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), a reserved Latino gamer, who, despite being home all day, did not hear Emma walk in and collapse.

The trio decides that calling the police would only land them in trouble. The cops would take one look at Emma’s pale, near lifeless body and arrest all three of them, Sean argues. Kunle, gripped by the need to do the right thing, suggests they drive her to the hospital instead. So begins a kind of road-trip-buddy-comedy haunted by the boys’ real fear of a fatal misunderstanding.

Emergency requires a bit of suspension of disbelief to fully enjoy. The three boys drag Emma’s body into Sean’s van and head on the road. At first, they consider depositing her in front of the fraternity house they think she walked from — a truly terrible idea. When they return to the original hospital plan, they realize they need to take campus backroads to avoid sobriety checkpoints.

Williams’ stylish direction, coupled with K.D. Davila’s assured screenplay, capitalizes on the absurdity of the situation; the boys crack genuinely funny jokes to ease their nerves. But Emergency would have benefitted significantly from more location and character development. It’s never made entirely clear in what part of the country the boys attend university, although a few jokes about the contradiction of well-meaning white liberals suggest a coastal state. While it may have been intentionally vague in order to underscore the universality of their experience, the specificity is missed.

The three main characters feel similarly underbaked, the actors’ strong performances failing to fully make up for the film’s reluctance to move beyond archetypal sketches. What drives Kunle, Sean and Carlos to remain friends after meeting each other freshman year? What is at stake for them if they interact with the police? Although Emergency gestures at these questions occasionally, it mostly prioritizes making broad observations and jokes about Race in America.

Where the film does succeed is in framing this familiar examination of police violence in America around friendship. While I found it hard to believe that Kunle, despite his allegiance to American exceptionalism, wouldn’t think twice about calling the cops, his conversations with Sean suggest the class and cultural differences that influence their respective ideologies. If only the film had teased these out a bit more, and more decisively included Carlos, who seems mostly like a sidekick and repository for socially-awkward-gamer jokes. Emergency mostly stays close to the surface of the issues it presents, which results in a darkly funny but frustrating viewing experience.

As the trio head to the hospital, they face increasingly zany situations, from a brief chase with racist white frat brothers to a white couple filming them during a pitstop. Meanwhile, trailing them is a different crew made up of Emma’s sister Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter), her best friend Alice (Madison Thompson) and Alice’s crush Rafael (Diego Abraham). Upon realizing that Emma has gone missing, those three track her phone and follow the van.

The two parties eventually cross paths and their eventual run-in with the police is one of the film’s most effective moments, with Williams sensitively capturing Kunle and Sean’s fates. The two may be different but Emergency suggests it’s their friendship with each other, above all else, that keeps them alive.

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