Senior year of college. Specifically the last semester of it where you and your bestie(s) have truly one last opportunity to make those long-lasting memories often exclusive to the place you attend. Sure, life doesn’t end after undergrad, but things are different.
Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is wrapping up his undergrad and his future is definitively bright. The science major has recently been accepted into the prestigious Princeton. His best friend, Sean (RJ Cyler) is simply living in the now, no concrete plans on what he wants to do post-graduation. In the interim? Smoking, drinking, and partaking in the “Legendary Tour,” which involves going to seven frat parties in one night. What’s the big commotion about this tour? They’ll be the first black men to complete it and earn their way on the wall of fame.
Their night gets off to a horrific start when they need to visit their friend, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) because of something Kunle forgot. On the living room floor is an unconscious white woman (Maddie Nichols). The three young adults have found themselves in an Emergency. Calling 911 would surely wrongly incriminate them, explains Sean. The debated but agreed alternative is embarking on an uneasy ride to the ER, where they’ll drop off the unconscious individual. Of course, this will not go how they think it will.
Since its release, a movie that has been brought up when discussing Emergency is Superbad. Similar(ish) setup involving hijinks happening with a group of three males, with the obvious differences being Superbad is a story featuring a humorously broad experience shared by many, whereas Emergency features a hellacious experience shared by fewer in comparison. I’d argue that it is most reminiscent of 2015’s Dope, another movie from a African-American viewpoint using a wild story setup to comment on black identity. It too like Emergency was a good watch if bumpy at times in tone and scripting.
Emergency itself is an expansion from a 2018 short directed and written by the same people who held director and writer status there in Carey Williams and K.D. Dávila. The film is a mashup of many genres, namely drama, comedy, and thriller, and as such Williams’ direction follows whatever is the focus at that particular moment. Sometimes, he’ll go into montage mode like at the start and highlight humor (of the three genres tagged, comedy is a stretch here but a consistent sense of energy is always present). Other times, Williams puts the focus on his cast and/or zooms out slightly and lets seconds within the scene linger to maximize the fraught tension the three men are exposed to.
Emergency truly finds its footing and is at its best in the last act where the previous attempts at humor are mostly removed and exchanged for the heaviness of the situation. The last few minutes are a powerful examination at the trauma—firsthand and secondhand—that never leaves a person of color and becomes an unwitting piece of their life’s existence. Problem is, building to this is not the smoothest of rides.
An early scene discussing the history of the “N” word led by a foreign Caucasian history professor partly does its purpose in showing two differing sides of the black experience coin; Sean is a native of America, Kunal is an immigrant. Their dialogue following this scene sheds light on how they see the world, but the preceding scene itself is played for unnecessary shock and comes off as cringe. Speaking of cringe, some (read: many) of the choices the college educated trio make in this one night are hard to wrap the brain around. To paraphrase someone on Reddit talking about these choices: There’s a reason the NWA song is called F*** tha Police, and not F*** the Paramedics. Calling 911 because someone got too drunk on a college campus isn’t going to result in a trigger happy swat team showing up.
Brutally poor choices committed by the characters exist, all said Emergency would be a rougher watch were it not for its dialed-in co-leads. Cyler has become an actor that should probably be followed and discussed more, whether it be in Power Rangers, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, The Harder They Fall, or even White Boy Rick. He’s a chameleon and excels as Sean, a guy who you kind of hate/are annoyed by but from a 30,000 foot view know exactly where he’s coming from and why he thinks what he thinks. Watkins is the more rational. It takes time for him to leave an imprint on the film, but he gets to flex his chops in the last act.
While getting through the questionable-at-best decision making may be difficult for a sizable fraction of viewers, Emergency pulls into an emotionally stirring ending. As the sirens blare in the background and the characters communicate their fear silently, it might be as visceral as any viral piece of social media.
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Some nuanced performances, but it was just one bad choice after another that kept me from feeling sorry for the predicament of the central college-educated trio. As you brilliantly pointed out, just call the paramedics. Everything solved.