This review of “Emergency” was first published Jan. 20, 2022, after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
To walk the world knowing that you are presumed a threat is the harrowing burden at the heart of “Emergency.” That appalling reality sets three young men of color on a nightmarishly nerve-racking drive, for taking the socially acceptable right course of action in a dire situation could endanger not only their future academic prospects but also their lives.
Walking a thematic line about the racial biases that plague America’s institutions and society at large akin to other such recent indie productions as “Blindspotting,” “The Land” or “Monsters and Men,” the sophomore effort from director Carey Williams (whose debut “R#J” was a social-media take on “Romeo and Juliet”) strikes a difficult equilibrium between its disquieting observations and comedic inclinations.
Williams works from the screenplay by KD Davila, a director with a similarly topical, sci-fi short film, “Please Hold,” currently on the Oscar shortlist. This pair of exciting filmmakers, who possess the aplomb to tackle stories with social relevance in unexpectedly genre-defying forms, previously collaborated on a 2018 short iteration of “Emergency.”
Best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins, “The Underground Railroad”) and Sean (RJ Cyler, “The Harder They Fall”) are Black students on the cusp of graduation, anticipating an epic party crawl around campus, who see their plans derailed when they walk into their place to discover a young white girl unconscious on their living room floor. Later, they’ll learn her name is Emma (Maddie Nichols) and that her irresponsible sister is trying desperately to find her.
At Sean’s panicked request, they refrain from calling 9-1-1, concerned about how authorities or paramedics will interpret the situation based solely on the young men’s race. From their vantage point, inviting those who already assume them to be predators into such a quandary is ill-advised. Even if they tell the truth, they won’t be immediately believed.
Joined by their third wheel, Mexican-American roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”), a lovable gamer with noble intentions, the trio embarks on a dangerous voyage to find help for their intruder, an intoxicated Goldilocks, without putting themselves at the mercy of the police.
For this high-wire act of calibrated tonal shifts, Williams and Davila draw comedy from the infuriating absurdity the roommates face at every corner they turn. Early sequences depicting the fantasy of a carefree night out offer bombastic filmmaking, with cinematographer Michael Dallatorre (“Brightburn”) painting the frames in colorful lights contrasting with the desolate darkness of what’s to come.
That the film begins with the possibility of being along the lines of “Project X” or countless other teenage comedies of hedonistic debauchery before settling into a more solemn mode reflects the Black and Brown youths who aren’t granted the space for such recklessness and lack of consequences that their white counterparts enjoy on-screen or off. Instead they are riddled with the constant, debilitating fear of one false move and suspicion hanging over them.
Halfway through their increasingly tempestuous ordeal, our heroes stop at Sean’s brother’s home, while his friends are there, which yields a hilarious interlude that speaks to how ingrained the notion of never being given the benefit of the doubt is for Black men in this country. In every laugh “Emergency” elicits, there’s an underlying recognition of that stark message.
The picture of Black Excellence, Kunle is the child of African immigrants who have successful careers in medicine. But while his initial concern is saving the bacteria integral to his thesis, the troublesome mission unveils to him that the respectability and status he’s earned — and the fact that his upbringing strayed from common narratives of trauma and scarcity — do not protect him from existing as a Black man in a blatantly racist reality.
A superbly afecting Elise Watkins leads the cast in command of an emotional journey for Kunle that goes from juvenile banter to sheer terror to a brokenness made whole only in the company of Cyler’s Sean, who has a deservedly jaded stance on what ultimately transpires. How the serpentine series of unfortunate events causes a fissure in their bond manifests the creators’ intent to use this friendship, and the limits to which it’s bent over the course of a few hours, to juxtapose their opposing experiences, and how those experiences inform the decision they make under pressure.
Far less developed in terms of how he sees himself fit into this rigged equation, or of the specific concerns that perhaps apply to his distinct background or upbringing, Carlos adds more endearment than hard-hitting musings. A brief moment involving one of Carlos’ family members does note how white Latinos benefit from not being instantly other-ized by the dominant culture, a privilege neither he nor his Black companions enjoy.
As much as Williams and Davila powerfully address questions of race and even self-serving white guilt in an intensely entertaining manner with layers of humor and gravitas, certain narrative choices do venture into obvious bluntness. The inclusion of a classroom with a white teacher singling out Kunle and Sean when lecturing on hate speech is one of a few story beats that ring noticeably on-the-nose.
Despite those negative outliers, “Emergency” still offers a third act that’s impossible to predict, attesting to Davila’s skillful subversion of facile expectations and Williams’ dexterity at handling the tension and devastating climax with lyrical tact. All in all, this electrifying and thought-provoking ride works as it chooses the searing over the subtle, a tough call when approaching a subject that warrants in-your-face urgency.
If there’s a single shot that encompasses the plethora of denunciations laid out here, it must that of the eyes of Elise Watkins’s Kunle, mirroring the now iconic image of a stunned and teary Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele’s horror masterwork “Get Out”; the details differ, but the two outcries of furious despair align. Needless to say, when the wheels of the young men’s vehicle come to a full stop, none of them will ever be the same.
“Emergency” opens Friday in U.S. theaters and premieres on Amazon Prime Video May 27.