As “Emergency” unfolds, it is not clear if the intent of the film is to be a comedy or a drama. But by the end, there is no doubt. This is a thoughtful movie about the nature of how people’s decision-making in a crisis is affected by the treatment of racial minorities in the United States.
Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) are best friends who are seniors in college. They are planning for a fun evening of partying. They attend a class dealing with taboos. The instructor notes that on the syllabus there was a warning about the nature of the reading for today’s meeting and for the discussion to follow. It is still surprising when the white female instructor puts the n-word on the screen and states it aloud. This particularly riles up Sean.
Later they arrive at the lab where Kunle is completing his thesis project dealing with fungi. He receives a phone call from his mother and they are excited about his acceptance to Princeton.
Sean’s goal for the present is to go on the “Legendary Tour” of spring break parties, doing seven in one night. Sean does not want to invite their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), who he feels is a supreme nerd with his omnipresent fanny pack full of granola bars. So he only gets tickets for two people to all of the parties.
As they arrive at their house, they find that Carlos has once again left the door open, apparently a chronic problem with him. This time however a drunk white female is sprawled on their floor. As Kunle tries to help her, she becomes sick.
Kunle wants to call 9-1-1 about the situation. Sean is horrified at the thought. He is much more concerned about how it would look for the police to arrive and find 2 black men and a Hispanic man with a drunk white woman.
By this time, Carlos is involved. He had been on his headphones playing games when she entered the house. The three men debate whether or not they should call emergency services, deposit her at some frat party, or take her to the hospital.
In another sequence, we see Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) looking for her missing sister Emma (Maddie Nichols), a high-school student she brought to the campus party she is at. She consults with her friend Alice (Madison Thompson). Maddy is put off by Alice’s hanger-on Rafael (Diego Abraham).
Maddy checks her sister’s phone’s GPS and sees where in the community she is. The three of them head out on a bicycle and hoverboard to find her.
Sean and Carlos have dressed up in Kunle’s more respectable clothing to begin their journey. A carnival of errors ensues as they fail to find a solution to the dilemma of Emma. When they are confronted by the 3 pursuers, things get messy.
“Emergency” was originally a short film. There always is a danger when expanding a short that filler will be added just to pad the length of the movie. One scene that seemed so to me was the classroom setting where the “n-word” is used. This does not truly advance the arc of the film in any significant way.
The picture, however, ends up being a serious commentary on race in America. The nuance which I appreciated is how fear of being treated differently can affect one’s decision-making. In this case, there is a critical situation where fear of being a male person of color alone with a semi-conscious inebriated white woman makes calling 9-1-1 a momentous choice, one that could be life-changing.
As the journey to take Emma somewhere unfolds, there is some humor involved. This helps to relieve the tension but it sometimes affects the tone of the film. You are never sure whether or not this is going to be a comedy or something more dramatic. For example, when Sean reveals that his cousin was shot by police, he later notes that his cousin was shot in the rear and now needs a colostomy bag. This strikes his two friends as humorous, although it really is not.
Some of the madcap adventures they undergo may be thought of as unwarranted since the three men with Emma continue to make bad decisions. But I was reminded of what a policeman once said in a self-defense training session I attended. He commented that people compound their mistakes by continuing to make bad decisions instead of just letting the initial bad decision stand by itself and contacting the police.
You also have two coincidences which have to be overcome in suspending disbelief. The first is that Kunle and Sean conveniently have a roommate who forgets to shut and lock doors. The second is the sudden unexplained appearance of Emma in their house. Later in the film, a reason for Emma being there is provided that makes sense, but until then you wonder if this is some gimmick to make a point.
RJ Cyler is perfect as the stoner who just wants to have a good time. When he is forced to make decisions that are serious, he shows that he is not really a mellow, laid-back person but a serious one who wants to live. His range is remarkable, and rings true throughout the picture.
Donald Elise Watkins also stands out as Kunle. He is the perfect student, destined for greatness at Princeton. His friendship with Sean is never really explained, although Kunle’s mother warns him on the phone that Sean is a bad influence. He goes through the most extreme arc of emotions in the film. The final scene with him is so moving.
The other actors are mostly types or caricatures. They are used to move the action along or to provide convenient connections to other characters or make points.
As the movie concluded, I was struck by a thought. Without giving anything away, I wish that filmmakers would take the time to provide a note on the screen that counseling and mental-health assistance is available for anyone going through PTSD. This could be done as a title just before the credits or at the end of the credits themselves. No one should have to go through crisis without seeking help.
This film is not for young children. A worthy addition to the dialogue on race in America.
Three-and-a-half out of five stars
Kunle and his best friend, Sean, are both seniors in college about to embark on an epic night of Spring Break parties. Sean has the whole night planned out, including every party they will hit on their “legendary tour”. Kunle is down but mostly concerned with finishing up his mold experiment in his lab, as his acceptance to Princeton is hinging on the results. They return to their apartment to pre-game, but find that their roommate, Carlos, left the door open. As they enter with trepidation, Sean and Kunle discover a drunk, semi-conscious white girl they don’t know on the floor and an oblivious Carlos, who didn’t hear her come in over the videogame blaring in his ears. Kunle wants to call the cops but Sean vehemently opposes the idea concerned how it will look when the cops show up (two black men, one Latinx man, and a passed out white woman). Together, Carlos, Sean and Kunle load the girl (who they nickname Goldilocks, but whose real name is Emma) into Sean’s van, with the intention of taking her somewhere safe rather than calling the police. Meanwhile, Emma’s sister, Maddy, has realized that Emma left the party they were at, and begins to search for her in a drunk panic using Emma’s phone’s location. What ensues is a chaotic, hilarious, and tension-filled chase all over town as our trio grapples with their differences while attempting to bring Emma to safety.
Starring RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Sabrina Carpenter, Maddie Nichols, Madison Thompson, Diego Abraham
Directed by Carey Williams
Written by Academy Award nominee KD Davila
"Emergency" shines a light on race, stress and decision-making
“Emergency” was originally a short film. There always is a danger when expanding a short that filler will be added just to pad the length of the movie.
The picture, however, ends up being a serious commentary on race in America.