Emergency (United States, 2022)

May 26, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Emergency Poster

Emergency, the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award winner at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, gives viewers things to think about, which is an infinitely preferable alternative to the kind of film where it’s possible to sense the mass demise of brain cells. An engaging but uneven thriller-comedy with a social conscience, Carey Williams’ sophomore feature, uses barbed satire as a means to enliven an unconventional (and admittedly contrived) situation. Race and how it plays into interactions with law enforcement plays a key element in the storyline’s development. Had the lead characters been white, there wouldn’t have been a movie. That’s the point being made by Williams and screenwriter KD Davila: the inherent mistrust by people of color when it comes to the police affects and infects how seemingly simple, rational decisions are made.

The movie starts out with a cheeky, clever scene that introduces the two main characters, Sean (RJ Cyler) and his roommate and best buddy, Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins). Seniors at Buchanan University, these two are headed in different directions after graduation, with the latter having already earned admittance to Princeton’s graduate program while the former doesn’t have specific plans. We meet them during a class about hate speech where the professor says the N-word out loud to observe the reaction and dissect what that reaction means.

While Kunle’s #1 preoccupation is making sure his bacteria cultures are kept at the correct temperature and humidity, Sean is focused on completing a legendary drinking tour of seven fraternity parties – something no black student has previously done. (When you’re in college, it’s good to have ambitious goals!) He has obtained all the necessary tickets/passes for himself and Kunle and has established a timeline and gameplan. They’re all ready to start when they stop back at their apartment and discover an unconscious white girl (Maddie Nichols) lying on their living room floor. Their game-obsessed other roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), is oblivious to her presence until the panicked Sean and Kunle point it out.

At this point, the movie gives us a little backstory for the white girl by introducing us to her sister, Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter), the sister’s friend Alice (Madison Thompson), and the sister’s friend’s would-be boyfriend Rafael (Diego Abraham).  They are aware that Emma (the unconscious white girl) is missing but don’t know where she is. They begin panicking because she’s underage, likely drunk, and might easily have been taken advantage of. The more concerned they become, the more certain they are that something bad has befallen her. Luckily, however, they are able to use an app to track her movements.

Meanwhile, Sean, Kunle, and Carlos are faced with a dilemma. Emma is in a bad way but she’s still breathing (she vomits once). They have to do something. But, after briefly considering calling 911, they back away from that option after Sean paints a picture: cops arriving to find three men of color gathered around a drunk, unconscious white girl. The optics are terrible and the best-case scenario doesn’t look very good. So they decide to drive Emma to a hospital but the road is more than a little bumpy and the trio of Maddie, Alice, and Rafael are in hot pursuit.

The movie benefits from the effectiveness of its pointed satire and the hilariousness of some of its comedic elements. There are some laugh-out-loud moments – one involving the improper use of a cannister of pepper spray and another showing the reaction of Sean’s brother and his gangbanger friends when they learn the true nature of Sean’s predicament. There are also some more subtle jabs (watch for the Black Lives Matter sign). The movie tails off during a 20-minute epilogue when the tone becomes somber and the filmmakers feel obligated to restate their message in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS. The thriller elements aren’t as effective as the humorous ones. Despite taking a few unpredictable turns, there’s not a lot of suspense.

Although parts of Emergency can feel like a bizarre cross-pollination of After Hours (Martin Scorsese’s 1985 chronicle of a nightmare road trip) and Weekend at Bernie’s, there’s more going on here. Despite the comedy, the screenplay poses some serious questions that can’t simply be brushed aside. There’s also something uneasy in the friendship between Sean and Kunle (with the former thinking the latter is “too white”) that might have benefited from a deeper exploration. Ultimately, Emergency doesn’t claim to have all the answers, which is why its watchability extends beyond its core audience to anyone willing to give it a shot. Considering its ready availability on Amazon Prime starting May 27, that’s a wide group of potential viewers.

Emergency (United States, 2022)

Director: Carey Williams
Cast: RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Sabrina Carpenter, Maddie Nichols, Madison Thompson, Diego Abraham
Screenplay: KD Davila
Cinematography: Michael Dallatorre
Music: Rene G. Boscio
U.S. Distributor: Amazon Studios/Prime Video
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2022-05-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: Thriller/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1