[Sundance 2022 Review] ‘Emergency’ approaches the college comedy differently

Making new friends in college is hard, but maintaining preexisting friendships in college might even be harder. Things have certainly changed between the two main characters in Carey WilliamsEmergency. While Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is on the road to success after graduation, Sean (RJ Cyler) has zero aspirations. In fact, Sean’s only concern right now is being able to participate in a local college event called the Legendary Tour. Their night of fun comes to a screeching halt, though, when they find a stranger passed out in their home.

Writing Black characters requires addressing reality. Had the leads here been white, their dilemma might have been solved sooner and with more ease. Kunle and Sean, however, are forced to consider the consequences if the police were to find them with a drunken white girl (Maddie Nichols) unconscious on their floor. Kunle is naïve to a fault, but Sean is relentlessly paranoid. They ultimately diverge in how to handle the problem at hand; Kunle wants to call for help, whereas Sean hopes to avoid trouble at all cost. Finally, Kunle, Sean, and their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) agree to anonymously dropping off their uninvited guest at a hospital thirty minutes away. What sounds easy enough soon becomes a journey fraught with many unforeseen complications.

Although Emergency is billed as a comedy, it often struggles to convey the humor of the characters’ external predicament. That’s because it’s not really a funny one to begin with. It’s also much too realistic. The mysterious passenger at one point wakes up from her stupor inside a van with three men she does not know. Viewers know she’s safe, but she has no idea what’s going on. Her subsequent scream changes the mood, and the audience is scared for her as she runs into a nearby forest. Embracing the absurdity of Kunle and Sean’s mess could have allowed for a more humorous tone. At the same time, doing so would make light of something serious like sexual assault and racism, and that is not what this film is going for.

Another area of potential confusion is Emergency‘s tendency to tiptoe around offensiveness. Topics of race regularly come up, and the characters indeed say problematic things, but the film almost always backpedals or softens the blow. Even though this might come across as the filmmakers avoiding controversy, they’re really making a more enlightened college comedy that shirks the subgenre’s traditional indelicacies.

The jokes don’t always land or leave much of a mark in Emergency, but when the story gets serious, the actors’ best performances come out. Cyler and Watkins have an amazing rapport in every scene they share. They bicker and hit below the belt like real friends might. Sabrina Carpenter plays the drunk girl’s concerned, older sister who trails the protagonists all night. She gets lost in her role, and every ounce of her character’s indignation is earned.

The heavy-handedness of Kunle and Sean’s racial quandary is not remotely subtle by the end. The outcome was telegraphed miles away. Knowing that, the events of the conclusion add a new layer to the core story. The tones of Emergency have been at odds with one another up until now, but writer KD Davila eventually favors one side. This is for the best seeing as the film operates much better as an endearing drama than a basic college comedy.

Emergency premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022.

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