Simplicity can go a long way for a movie. All you really need are memorable characters and a compelling situation to throw them into. Some of the best short films play out like a situation. Emergency started off as a short film in 2018. It went on to win Best Short at SXSW and the Seattle International Film Festival. Most importantly, it won a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Now, three years later, director Carey Williams returns to Sundance with the same premise, extended into a feature-length night of hell.
Three college boys – two Black, one Latino – stop by at their home to pick up a few things before they set out for a night of partying, when suddenly they find an unconscious white girl in their living room. Should they call the police? But how would that look? The rest of Emergency unfolds as characters make decisions. Bad decisions. And then come the bad timings. Then the misunderstandings. And underneath all that? Real racial anxiety and social fears.
The remarkable blend of comedy and sobering drama bears a strong resemblance to films like Blindspotting, where character motivations are shaped by their upbringing and circles of influence. Most of all, the duo that carries the story is one of polarizing personalities. Kunle (Donald Watkins) is a straight-A student who grew up in a happy, comfortable family of immigrant doctors. He’s academic, rational, and always thinking about the right thing to do. His best friend Sean (RJ Cyler) could not be more opposite of those traits. He banters a lot. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He vapes and struts in his pride of street intelligence. Most of all, he is out for himself and his friends because he assumes the worst in people.
The rift between the two of them existed long before the plot of the film kicks in. Early on, a friend of Sean’s (who is also Black) describes Kunle as an example of “Black excellence,” that “there is still hope for him.” As if Sean is the kind who is long gone. As if his Blackness is representative of all the stereotypes white people have ingrained in their brains, and that Kunle is the chance to “prove them wrong.”
By the time Sean and Kunle – and their outsider friend Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) – discover the unconscious white girl Emma (Maddie Nichols) in their living room, you can already guess how each character will handle the situation. At certain moments, you will find yourself frustrated over how stupid everyone is. At other moments, you may find yourself laughing at the comedic timing, and wonder whether or not the script is being satirical. What I cannot deny is Williams’ ability to juggle all of these tones at once, to have his film be stressful, then funny, then stressful again.
Things get more complicated, absurd, and National Lampoon-y as the film progresses, as new white characters like Emma’s sister Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) are introduced into the mix and our boys’ situation becomes more and more dire. The more Emergency goes on, the more you start to feel the effects wear off and fizzle into your typical short film stretched to feature length.
That is until the third act, when everything explodes in your face and you’re praying to God that no one gets hurt. It is here where Watkins and Cyler’s performances truly shine, and we reach back to the emotional core of Emergency set up from the beginning, that is the turbulent but precious friendship between these two young Black men and the muddy waters they must navigate every day –inspired by Williams’ relationship with his own brother.
A lot of Emergency is touchy and possibly not deep or sophisticated enough in its commentary, since the film is first and foremost a comedy built out of a racially sensitive situation. For that reason, the film could overstay its welcome or just not work at all for certain viewers. But the jokes land when they come, the sighs of relief and cathartic laughs help every time, and the stress that builds throughout the film remains strong. Most of all, Watkins, Cyler, and Chacon are dynamite on screen. With the help of René G. Boscio’s poignant score and Williams’ sense of style, color, and energy, they carry Emergency all the way to the end.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release Emergency later this year. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.