At the start, Carey Williams’ Emergency shares a lot in common with coming-of-age comedies like Superbad and Booksmart. The leads are a bit older (in college instead of high school), but there are direct comparisons to be made in the personalities of the protagonists, and the characters’ goals are similar: a night of epic partying and potential romance. This isn’t actually a description of a fault – as while the material may be familiar, it’s executed with a great deal of personality and wit.
That being said, when the film really gets going, it evolves into something else entirely, and it’s not only unique, but comical and thought-provoking.
Emergency had its world premiere this weekend as part of the slate of exciting features debuting as part of the all-virtual 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s actually a title that I wish I had gotten to see in a crowded theater, as it’s an impressive emotional experience of big highs and lows. It hits with gut-busting laughs and powerful dramatic punches, and it would be an enhanced ride along with an audience.
Written by KD Davila and adapted from the short of the same name (also a Sundance debut), Emergency immediately presents a classic super ego/id/ego character dynamic: Kunle (Donald Elise Wakins) is the dedicated student laser focused on a bright future; Sean (RJ Cyler) is the party animal living in the now; and Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) is the mediator who has the middle position on lock when things get a bit too heated between his best friends. They are getting ready to graduate from college, but before they do there is an epic night ahead of them as they try to attend a gauntlet of gatherings going down around campus (though Carlos doesn’t know that Sean was only able to get two passes).
Before they can even attend the first party, however, the plan is spectacularly derailed. Sean and Kunle arrive back to their apartment and discover that there is a random White girl (Maddie Nichols) passed out in their living room while Carlos is in his room playing video games, utterly unaware of what’s happening.
It’s at this point in the plot that Emergency becomes something special and fascinating. If the protagonists were White themselves, they could call the police, resolve the bizarre situation, and go off for their night of partying with a weird story to tell – but Kunle, Sean, and Carlos are very aware that race changes the entire dynamic of the situation. Knowing that there is a very real potential for unjustified reprisal, they are forced to try and resolve the situation themselves and get the mystery girl to an emergency room.
RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Wakins make a terrific duo in Emergency, at the heart of both great comedy and drama.
Given the intensity of the subject matter portrayed in the film, Emergency could have easily been written as a straight thriller, but it’s actually more impressive as a comedy – the movie able to perform some tremendous tonal shifts without it ever feeling throttling, wrongheaded, or disingenuous. It succeeds in bringing tears to your eyes through both hilarity and intensity, and it leaves an impression.
RJ Cyler, who is one of the many highlights in last year’s The Harder They Fall, is not the sole comedic source in the film, but he is the greatest strength in that department. He gets big laughs doing everything from rapid-fire line delivery to a properly timed raised eyebrow – ever willing to deliver a dose of street smarts whenever his friend’s academic intelligence shelters him from the reality of their situation. Donald Elise Wakins is more often than not the straight man in the pairing, and he has tremendous chemistry with Cyler, but what stands out about his performance are the moments of pure drama.
To keep with the parlance of coming-of-age movies, Kunle is a virgin where encounters with the police are concerned, and while he certainly has an awareness of the issues in the country regarding the relationship between minority groups and law enforcement, there is a potent personal understanding that he develops over the course of the film. When Emergency arrives at its climax, it’s able to hit like a truck – and you’re all the more engaged because of how much you care about the characters, with whom you’ve spent the last 90 minutes or so laughing.
Emergency has a great awareness of the tropes and expectations that come with the coming-of-age comedy subgenre, and it wonderfully succeeds in both honoring them and subverting them. It’s an ideal blend of entertaining and thought-provoking, and with Amazon Studios as a producer it will hopefully find its way to wide audiences soon.
You can keep track of all the films set to be released in the coming year with our 2022 Movie Release Calendar, and stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for more of our Sundance Film Festival coverage.