CAST: RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Maddie Nichols, Sabrina Carpenter, Madison Thompson, Diego Abraham, Summer Madison, Gillian Rabin, Patrick Lamont Jr., Robert Hamilton, Melanie Jeffcoat
RUNNING TIME: 105 mins
BASICALLY…: Two best friends (Cyler and Watkins) face a night of tension when they find an unconscious girl (Nichols)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
“Institutionalised racism on college campus” seems to be the connective tissue for two of Amazon’s most high-profile acquisitions from Sundance earlier this year. Like Master before it, Emergency was also fairly well-received at the annual film festival, with many pointing out the dark underlying social satire in its all-too relevant system, and was snapped up by the conglomerate for a speedy hybrid theatrical/streaming release, ensuring it got as much of an audience as possible. The key difference between the two is that, while Master opted for the more sinister quasi-horror angle, Emergency has a slightly more comedic tone that puts it in line with something like Superbad or Booksmart.
The greater irony, however, is that the comedy version of exploring uncomfortable racial bias manages to feel more disturbing than the horror version, and it makes for more engrossing viewing as a result.
Similar to Superbad and Booksmart, Emergency mostly takes place over the course of a single evening, when college roommates and best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) are preparing to embark on a legendary campus tour of all the hottest party spots, hoping to become the first Black students to complete the trek. Their plans are disrupted, however, when they and fellow roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) come across an unconscious white girl (Maddie Nichols) lying on their living room floor: the sensible option, Kunle first surmises, is to call 911, but the unfortunate situation – three students of colour being around a vulnerable white young person – causes them to think twice about how the police will read the room. The only other option is to drive the girl to the emergency room, which they attempt to do over the course of the night, which only invites misunderstanding after misunderstanding everywhere they go, especially when the girl’s sister Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) is also hot on their trail.
At first glance, this is definitely the kind of situation that could easily be solved by simple communication, but the clever aspect of this film is that it is not immediately apparent, especially when those who are simply trying to help also happen to be of colour. Director Carey Williams and writer KD Dávila – whose feature debut is an extended version of their earlier short film of the same name – smartly lay out the likely outcomes of their rough situation through sharply written dialogue that emphasises the disturbing realities which go hand-in-hand with police brutality, and pressure-box pacing that makes you feel the pure frustration and even terror that the protagonists are going through. It certainly uses dark satirical comedy as a means of exposing the normalisation of prejudiced behaviour – an opening scene sees the two central students in a class where their white teacher repeatedly uses very offensive racial slurs within an academic context, causing them to afterwards debate the necessity of using such language in any justifiable circumstance – but unlike Master, which was also satirical but in a more overt and obvious way, Emergency instead positions it as a launching pad to establish context for why our heroes don’t just do the sensible thing like others might, making their actions foolish but also unnervingly plausible.
Despite the very bleak undertones that both Williams and Dávila are working with, and there are a lot of moments that almost become more horrific to watch than the actual horror movie about the same subject, Emergency does also get away with being pretty funny at times. Granted, it generates the kind of laughter that makes you feel uncomfortable every time you let out a chuckle, but there are some good lines which are delivered very well by its two strong leads RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins, who work well together to a point where you actually do buy why these two vastly different personalities would be friends for so long (although don’t rule out Sebastian Chacon either, as the McLovin of the group and the surprising source of some of the film’s sweetest moments). Both actors do a really good job of making you really feel their growing anxiety as the nightmarish evening progresses further and further, but in those lighter moments they also have a wild knack for well-delivered comedy that livens the mood even for just a little bit.
There are a couple of parts of the movie, though, which don’t exactly flow as well as they should. At regular intervals, we cut back to Sabrina Carpenter’s character as she and her white friends traverse through the rough neighbourhoods in search of her unconscious sister, and while it’s certainly necessary for that perspective to be there, they are also relatively one-note from the doofus to the voice of reason to, in terms of Carpenter’s character, kind of a nightmare to be around. It gets to a point with this character, who becomes so tyrannical and self-righteous that even her friends have to call her out on her behaviour, that you feel that she gets off a little too easy by the end, in an epilogue which does go on for longer than it needs to. The script either needed to heavily reduce her role, or make her much more of an understandable person who doesn’t jump to such radical conclusions without simply communicating first.
Certain issues aside, Emergency is a tough but engaging watch that will leave you feeling extremely uncomfortable in parts, as is surely its intention, but also remembers to offset the dour mood with a decent enough heart and some on-point moments of dark comedy to further engage the viewer with the situation and most of its characters. Comparatively, while Master is a much bleaker and more dour movie than this, it did wear its themes and subtexts a little too heavily on its sleeve, whereas this has a bit more to say about the far too normalised environment that prevents even the most well-meaning of Black people from immediately doing the right thing.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Emergency is a bleak but darkly funny satire of institutionalised racism which has some disturbing things to say about the normalisation of certain prejudices in society, but also manages to offset the mood with some sharp dialogue and pressure-box direction which is performed well by formidable leads RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins, and a surprisingly sweet heart at the centre of the nightmare.