Powerfully poignant ‘Emergency’ entwines classic college comedy with timely twist

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Two best friends walk through campus. They’re excitedly engaging in crude banter, accidentally bumping into other students and making light fools of themselves along the way. Sean (RJ Cyler) is a fun-seeking wild card who seems to care more about having a good time than his academic performance. Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is his partner in crime — the gifted, straight-laced brains of the operation who dresses a couple decades older than he looks. 

The two are preparing to achieve the greatest accomplishment of their young lives: becoming the first Black men at their university to complete the “Legendary Tour,” a restless night of all-out partying in which challengers attempt to visit all seven of the school’s fraternities. Following two underdog friends seeking greatness through partying, “Emergency” is a true college buddy comedy — until it’s not.

Suddenly, a lighthearted night of fun takes a sharp, dark turn. When the two young men and their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) find an unconscious white girl Emma (Maddie Nichols) passed out in their living room, they face a dilemma: How can three young men of color help this girl when the innocent truth might be enough to get them arrested or even killed?

“Emergency,” written by K.D. Dávila and directed by Carey Williams, is unexpectedly disturbing. The film nails its thrill factor. With very real threats and very real consequences growing more overwhelming by the minute, audiences are sure to be sweating alongside the well-intentioned trio. Throw in some car troubles, mislabeled beverage bottles, a college town crawling with cops and a vengeful pursuit of the misunderstood roommates by Emma’s sister Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter), and the resultant chaos is a minefield for disaster at every turn.

The film’s capacity to thrill is demonstrative of Dávila and Williams’ outstanding ability to pace a story and set an increasingly uneasy tone. What’s more impressive is the successful maintenance of believability as the film continually devolves further into mayhem. Though the series of unfortunate events Sean, Kunle and Carlos encounter throughout the night is incredibly unlikely, the flow of the plot is natural enough that viewers are never taken out of the story. The guys are certainly unlucky, but their misfortune is still realistic. Audiences can’t help but imagine that real people — maybe even themselves — could fall victim to the trio’s ill-fated spiral, making the fears and emotional aftermath the characters experience all the more striking.

“Emergency” explores race in the present-day United States in an extraordinarily nuanced way, emphasizing the relationship between people of color and law enforcement. When the guys first find Emma, Kunle suggests what may be the obvious course of action: calling the police. However, rightfully cautious Sean refuses due to founded concerns of being villainized, kicking off the night’s chaos and complicating the sticky scenario. The trio can call the police or drive an inebriated Emma around looking for help; it’s a lose-lose situation that always forces the characters into a corner of fearing for their lives.

Though the guys make it through the night without their worst fears coming true, they are not left entirely unscathed by their encounters with law enforcement. Kunle, the one who is initially most trusting of police, seems to carry his experiences with him the most — and these effects remain unresolved. This detail in character development is perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the film; racist law enforcement is not always as obvious as gunshots, but just one abuse of power is enough to have devastating long-term effects.

With a complex and immensely relevant spin on a familiar setup, “Emergency” uses a tense and terrifying progression to explore some of the lived experiences of Black Americans, especially the extent of trauma caused by deep-rooted prejudice. The film is a devastating yet worthwhile and important watch.

Contact Joy Diamond at [email protected].