Emergency

**1/2

Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Emergency
"It’s great to see comedy set against dark subject matter, but here the balancing act often falters." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

In Emergency, a would-be madcap college comedy gets interrupted by the reality of being black in America. Sean and Kunle have been planning an epic tour of frat parties, but when a drunk white girl mysteriously appears passed out in their dorm room, their response isn’t as simple as it might be for white kids. Call an ambulance, Sean argues, and they could wind up being suspected of a crime — they could even be shot before they can explain what’s going on.

That sense of fear drives the one-crazy-night plot line, which sees the dream of nonstop partying slowly drift away as the boys attempt to get the girl to the hospital without neighbors accusing them of dealing drugs or cops shooting them.

RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins star, respectively, as Sean and Kunle. Sean has a pessimistic view of race in America and a laissez-faire attitude toward senior year academics. Kunle is his perfect foil, as he tries to assume the best in people while obsessively working on his thesis project. This comes through early in the film, after their white professor begins a lecture by projecting the n-word huge on the classroom screen, and giving an intellectual speech about the power of words. The two boys debate it afterwards, as Kunle justifies the intellectual exercise while Sean points out they it’s the one word black people ask white people not to say, and the professor threw it up to violate that code.

Emergency is the second feature from director Carey Williams, whose debut, R#J, was a Romeo and Juliet adaptation for the age social media. It featured a few inspired moments, but suffered from poor pacing and having one of the Dumbest Fucking Endings of All Time. This time around, Williams puts up a more consistently engaging effort, but one that still relies on contrivances and heavy-handed execution.

The Sundance Film Festival jury awarded Emergency the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, which makes sense in some ways more than others. On one hand, the KD Davila’s script weaves in engaging social commentary and debate into an entertaining yarn. On the other, its structure heavily relies on buddy comedy formula and convenient plot mechanics.

It’s great to see comedy set against dark subject matter, but here the balancing act often falters. The film needs us to genuinely worry that the girl might die, but also needs us to believe she can wake up from her drunken stupor and get into antics that drag out the running time and give the characters stuff to argue about. This absurdism could work in a more slapstick scenario (and there are a couple of solid slapstick gags), but the push for important melodrama in the climax makes the whole thing seem hollow.

The excellent performances from Cyler and Watkins deserve the bulk of the credit for the film’s successes. Even when they are confined by stereotypes — laidback chill guy, uptight nerd — they find a way to bring out the humanity. You’ll definitely root for their characters, you might just be rooting for them to be in a better movie.

Reviewed on: 09 Feb 2022
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Ready for a night of partying, a group of Black and Latino college students must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unusual emergency.


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