Emergency understands the tragedy of individuals forced to feel systematically dehumanized, but stumbles when it comes to logic, comedy, and tension.
The college party movie, usually fronted by a couple smarmy white dudes, gets a challenge with Emergency, a fascinating but ultimately ineffective piece of satire with terrific politics but a flaccid script. Meet Kunie (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler), a couple of Black college seniors on the cusp of graduation and best pals. Science nerd Kunie just wants to make sure his crucial experiments are going along nicely, but Sean is intent on getting them into the hottest parties this weekend. Things go entirely awry, however, when their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) leaves their door unlocked and the two return home to find a passed out, clearly extremely intoxicated white woman on their living room floor.
Actually, let’s take a step back. Emergency opens with a scene that would seem ridiculous if it weren’t entirely too plausible. Kunie and Sean attend a class during which their white, female, British professor administers a handful of trigger warnings before beginning a lecture about the n-word, which she not only repeats multiple times but projects in huge letters on a screen. In response, everyone, of course, looks at the only two Black students in the room. It’s probably the most uncomfortable scene in the entire film, providing crucial context for what’s to come. But it also sets the stage for a movie that’s more interested in exploring the politics of its contrivances rather than generating either suspense or comedy.
But back to the passed out white chick. Kunie immediately wants to call 911, but Sean stops him, with a not remotely unfounded fear that if the cops show up and find two Black kids with a white girl in trouble, best case they get arrested and worst case they might even get killed. Instead, they decide to try to “help” this stranger and hopefully still make good on Sean’s party plans. You can imagine how well that’s going to turn out. It’s a potentially rich premise, one that would allow writer K.D. Davlia and director Carey Williams (expanding a short film) the opportunity to deconstruct a full-on modern day Animal House-style campus epic, taking on college speech politics, race and gender dynamics, ideas of Black excellence, and so forth, while still delivering on the comedy. The injection of very real fears of police violence could — but crucially doesn’t — serve as a huge needle scratch, a dire issue that, for these characters, terrifyingly supersedes all of those other concerns. But here, it merely consumes the narrative, pushing all the other stuff to the side.
Not only does this premise derail the comedy, but the sheer logic of it derails the tension. The guys’ fears of being accused of a crime and potentially even losing their lives over it are nothing if not agonizingly believable. What everyone, in front of and behind the camera, fails to notice, though, is that they’re in a lot more trouble if the girl dies, which she’s gonna do if she doesn’t get medical attention. Certainly the extremity of the idea here is meant to be a catalyst for the film’s satire, but it has the blowback effect of only leaving you frustrated with the characters’ blatant stupidity and reckless behavior. An ambitious but unfortunately relatively toothless satire, Emergency makes a valiant effort in depicting characters whose feelings of systematic dehumanization might cause actual loss of human life, but its focus skews a little too broad, its thrills too slight, and its laughs too scarce.
You can catch Carey Williams’ Emergency in theaters on May 20 or streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning on May 27.
Originally published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 4.