Adapted from a 2018 short film with the same name, Sundance veteran Carey Williams returns to the festival with Emergency, a comedy-drama that follows three students who are preparing for an epic night of partying. However, their plans are disrupted when they find an unconscious girl on their living room floor.
Starring RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, and Sebastian Cachon, Emergency focuses on the studious Kunle (Watkins) and his stoner best friend Sean (Cyler), who are anticipating a night-long tour of parties in the hope of making it on ‘The Hall of Firsts’, a wall of fame celebrating the achievements of Black alumnae. When Kunle’s study becomes compromised, they delay Sean’s well-detailed plan while hoping to avoid their weird gamer roommate Carlos (Cachon), as they only have two tickets per party. However, Kunle’s apprehension turns into horror when a girl, Emma (Maddie Nichols), is found unconscious in their house and no one knows who she is and, more importantly, what to do.
When it comes to racial inequality and Black Lives Matter, it is and has always been one of those issues that people of colour continue to address and fight. Regardless of what is seen on TV or in film (Queen & Slim and The Hate U Give being notable examples), nothing fully prepares people for the dread and fear Black people experience because of their skin colour. Therefore, these instances are treated like horror stories and ‘What If’ scenarios until it either happens again or worse, people experience it personally.
It is this underlying fear that drives Emergency, as Williams and screenwriter KD Davila pour all of these fears into one anxiety-filled night. Setting the tone with a questionable linguistics class, this unsettling mood grows with the narrative. It is bad enough that there is a random girl in the group’s home but their anxiety levels go through the roof as she is also unconscious, there is weed lying around and they have no concrete alibis. Their collective paranoia causes them some rash and frankly dumb decisions while exacerbating an already terrible night with poor timing to spiked drinks creating situations that offer dark though light-hearted relief. However, the truth is that although they want this girl to be safe, nothing compares to their collective hope that they aren’t caught with her so these comedic touches do not dissuade the horror of what might happen due to their race and circumstances.
This is aided by Davila’s evocative screenplay and talented cast, with Watkins and Cyler offering incredible performances as Sean’s frankness about being a Black teenager in America brilliantly balances the high-achieving Kunle, who feels the pressure of being a Black straight-A student. Although they, along with Carlos, portray typical teen film tropes, their camaraderie is wholesome and charming to the point that it doesn’t matter what they have done – you just want them to be okay.
Williams also reinforces the unspoken incredulity behind stereotypes with the hypocrisy that ties in with white privilege. There are BLM ‘supporters’ yet immediately starts filming the group and partygoer Maddie (Carpenter) assume that the group is ‘kidnapping’ her younger sister Emma despite her being her responsibility. Some might consider these assumptions as knee-jerk reactions, but Williams forces audiences to experience these fears with a tense altercation and a fruitless and seemingly forced apology, reiterating that certain things cannot be brushed away and sometimes, no one is listening to your explanations as the only thing they see is skin colour.
With a haunting closing shot, Williams offers a darkly comedic yet brutally honest social commentary that doesn’t dilute the horrors of racial inequality. Offering great performances and bold screenplay, Emergency is a deeply affecting and incredibly compelling watch.
Director: Carey Williams, KD Davila (screenwriter)
Stars: RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sabrina Carpenter, Maddie Nichols, Sebastian Cachon
Runtime: 115 minutes