Emergency review: Timely, tense and funny
Balance of tone8
Matthew Turner | On 28, May 2022
Director: Carey Williams
Cast: RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Maddie Nichols, Madison Thompson, Sabrina Carpenter
Expanded from their award-winning 2018 short film of the same name, Emergency is directed by Carey Williams and written by KD Dávila. Delivering laughs, suspense and political commentary in equal measure, the film works on a number of levels and marks Williams as a talent to watch.
Set in a northeastern university, the film centres on straight-laced, straight-A student Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), whose bacteria studies have landed him a place at Princeton. His best buddy is Sean (RJ Cyler), a down-to-earth, party-happy dope-smoker who persuades Kunle to accompany him on a legendary tour of parties at all seven campus frat houses.
However, before they even set off, their night hits a serious snag when they find a passed-out white girl (Maddie Nichols) on the floor of their apartment and their nerdy, gamer flatmate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) has no idea how she got there. Given that Kunle and Sean are Black and Carlos is Latino, the trio reason that if they call the cops, they’ll be arrested immediately, so they attempt to drive her to the nearest hospital emergency room.
Watkins and Cyler are extremely likeable actors and they both deliver perfectly pitched comic performances, finding humanity and warmth beneath their surface stereotypes. Accordingly, the friendship between Kunle and Sean forms the beating heart at the centre of the film, giving the story its most emotional moments.
There’s also strong support from Chacon, who manages to stay just the right side of annoying, while Sabrina Carpenter is smartly cast as Maddie, the young girl’s older sister, who’s attempting to rescue her by tracking her phone. To that end, the film understands that Maddie – angry and not in possession of the facts – would pose a significant danger to the trio once the police are involved.
Williams’ direction is assured throughout. It’s often said that a large part of direction is tone management and Williams does a superb job of balancing humour, tension and the real stakes of the situation, in that the audience knows throughout that Sean’s suspicions of the police are well founded and they’re at genuine risk of being shot.
That acknowledgement hangs over the entire film, creating an uneasy atmosphere and investing every encounter (particularly with a pair of suspicious white neighbours who quickly pull out their cameras and start filming) with escalating tension. The script also has astute observations to make elsewhere – Kunle’s reaction when he meets Sean’s older brother’s friends is very telling, while the film finds a provocative and interesting way to highlight Maddie’s privilege in a nicely staged coda scene that doesn’t play out the way you expect.
In short, Emergency pulls off an impressive balancing act – it has all the thrills of a classic one-crazy-night movie, it delivers a consistent stream of decent laughs and it’s also a touching portrait of friendship, while leaving you with something to think about afterwards as well. Think Superbad, with a social conscience and fewer gross-out gags.