This review was originally published as part of Paste’s 2022 Sundance coverage.
Nobody ever wants to find an unconscious white girl on their living room floor. But if you’re Black? If you’re Black and you have plans? That’s a surefire way to ruin a night. This is what happens to Princeton-bound stick-in-the-mud Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and party boy Sean (RJ Cyler), college best friends who just want to go on a massive, World’s End-level tour of frat parties. Now they’re stuck with a medical situation in a duct-tape dress that doubles as a laser sight for the targets already on their backs. Emergency’s night-out-gone-wrong caper sees director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Dávila reteam to expand upon their sweaty and sharp 2018 short of the same name. The feature version’s fantastic ensemble and tense premise provides plenty of squirmy laughter, but its prolonged evening suffers diminishing returns.
At its core, Emergency is a comedy of self-preservation masquerading as a comedy of errors. Kunle and Sean arrive home after a searingly funny scene in which their British professor delights in saying the N-word and everyone turns around to look at the pair like the “Say the Line, Bart!” meme to find this passed-out blonde death sentence. If it were ever in question as to why Sean might be adamant Kunle not call the cops, the intentionally provocative racism of the lead-in reminds everyone how casually they could become casualties. So it’s not hard to buy their solution-seeking freakout, especially considering that Sean and their nerdy roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon)—who just wanted to hit a bong and play Civ all night—are pretty high right now. Everyone into the van.
The strongest parts of Emergency follow. The trio and their Wheat-Skinned at Bernie’s hijinks are hilarious, bolstered by the complex rapport between Watkins, Cyler and Chacon’s odd yet recognizable third-wheel. Williams expertly runs them through an increasingly intense gamut that piles the college sins of drunk driving, wandering around stoned, trying to hook up with a crush, having annoying friends and maintaining academic ambitions on top of a basic and essential knowledge that the cops are a bigger threat than resource. It’s here that the film uses the race of its characters to inform and enhance its silly situations in unspoken ways (frat boys clad in beer carton armor hucking PBRs is hilariously goofy until one clips a taillight), which becomes less subtle and more on-the-nose as the night goes on.
Part of this is due to how the movie deals with the girl—who wakes up from time to time, undermining the movie’s strongest driving force to explain that her name is Emma (Maddie Nichols) before conking out again until it’s (in)convenient—and those seeking her. Emma’s sister Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) leads a hunt for her that’s more of a distraction than anything, diluting a pure and fearful premise that was made all the more effective by its impenetrable mystery and inherent focus on the trio’s POV. “The incapacitated white girl” works so well as a silent symbol that Emergency’s waffling on whether to explore her and her sister as characters takes away some of that power.
Still, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud gags along the way, like when a stream of Black men immediately flee a house after the group brings Emma in, that keep things lively. But really, it’s the chemistry between Watkins and Cyler—playing complicated characters that counter and correct each other mid-sentence (about not saying “bitch” so much; about how Kunle dresses like a substitute teacher)—that stands out. There’s clear, complex affection between the two characters that plays out in punchlines and apologies, in invaded spaces and unself-conscious embraces. Their conversations are rapidfire, with Cyler giving the flashiest performance as the intoxicated and riffing realist, but the actors all deliver such honesty that we believe their characters would actually make whatever wrong-headed decisions actually push the plot further into danger. Chacon is a real talent too, getting some of the best jokes and delivering them with a reliably endearing dweebiness. It often doesn’t matter too much that these meandering talky scenes that aren’t naturally integrated into the movie feel like padding—the performers are so compelling that we’ll happily shut up and listen, even if it takes us out of the tension.
But when the movie does remember that it needs to be tense, it veers from an anxious comic-thriller of reasonable bad decisions to a PSA melodrama. Williams’ style changes completely and incongruously, putting the transitory work on his actors’ shoulders. Sure, there’s a certain realism to the escalation—a confrontation with the cops is the central fear driving the characters’ actions, after all, as Sean declares that he doesn’t want to be a hashtag—but the jarring tonal shift also takes away one of the short’s strongest points: Its ambiguity. The short sees a white-passing relative interact with the cops and everything works out…with a caveat. We’re left with the question of what would’ve happened if one of the other friends called the police, if their warring worldviews weren’t given definite answers in a world where the odds are never in their favor. In Emergency, there are answers, blunt and careening like they sped in from a different movie. Watkins and Cyler still hold things together, but the last act makes their great and multifaceted work feel like connective tissue between the two movies living inside Emergency rather than the spotlit superstar of one.
It’s a disservice to what they’re bringing to the table, but what they bring is still impossible to ignore. Emergency’s ensemble sustains its premise for far longer than it should be able to, maintaining the nuanced balance of commentary-thriller-comedy whenever the script becomes too interested in just one ingredient of its complex cocktail. Spiraling out a gripping premise like this into an hour and 45 minutes takes dedication, not just to the plot and its characters, but to the spirit of the incident at its heart. Like any long night out, Emergency grows hazy and unfocused as it goes on; like a long night out with good friends, it’s still worth the headache.
Director: Carey Williams
Writers: K.D. Dávila
Stars: RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Maddie Nichols, Madison Thompson, Sabrina Carpenter
Release Date: January 20, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.