Producers: Isaac Klausner, John Fischer and Marty Bowen Director: Carey Williams Screenplay: K.D. Dávila Cast: RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, Sabrina Carpenter, Maddie Nichols, Sabrina Carpenter, Madison Thompson, Diego Abraham. Summer Madison, Gillian Rabin, Patrick Lamont, Jr., Robert Hamilton and Melanie Jeffcoat Distributor: Amazon Studios
Writer K.D. Dávila and director Carey Williams attempt to do for college hijinks comedies something akin to what Jordan Peele did for horror movies in “Get Out”—add a dose of social commentary about contemporary racism to their chosen genre. It’s an ambitious goal, and if “Emergency” doesn’t quite manage to achieve it with complete success, it deserves credit for trying.
The narrative is pretty thin, just a single situation embellished in a succession of episodes. (It’s an expansion of a 2017 short film, and the strain shows.) Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) are roommates at Buchanan University, seniors who, presuming they finish their theses, will shortly graduate. They’ve been best friends for years, but are very unlike. Kunle is a semi-nerdy grind, the son of strict African-born parents pushing him to succeed, and dedicated to the lab work that constitutes his thesis research. Sean, who seems surgically attached to his vaping device, is a totally lax student who wants to enjoy the week’s festivities, which include making him and Kunle the first black students to attend a traditional string of seven “underground” parties, thereby earning them a spot on the black student union’s “wall of firsts.”
But a crisis derails Sean’s plans for celebrity. Returning to their place to get ready for the big night, they find a pretty white girl (Maddie Nichols) passed out in their living room. Their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Cacon), a likably laid-back fellow whose obsession with gaming makes him oblivious to everything else, doesn’t know how she got there.
The immediate question is what to do; she’s alive but totally out of it, awakening only long enough to throw up before slipping back into unconsciousness. Straight-arrow Kunle wants to call 911, but Sean resists, arguing that they’ll inevitably be considered responsible. So the three roomies decide to drive her to the emergency room instead, though along the way they reconsider that plan, leading to a succession of detours that make the situation more and more fraught, if not necessarily funnier.
Meanwhile we learn that the girl is Emma, a high school kid in town to visit her sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter), who lost track of her at a wild frat party. Maddie can track Emma via the GPS on her phone, and so she’s soon chasing after the guys and their passenger, with her best friend Alice (Madison Thompson) and Rafael (Diego Abraham), a handsome dude with eyes for Alice, along to provide support.
As the wild night goes on, Sean will have to decide whether to set aside his desire to party, and his experience of what involvement with the police can easily lead to for a young black man, in order to support his best friend. But it’s Kunle who really has to come to terms with the reality of life in America. Coming from a sheltered background and embracing the view that hard work and following the rules can bring success to anyone in a supposedly unbiased country, he learns that the color of one’s skin usually remains what matters when push comes to shove. That point becomes clear in encounters with drunken frat boys, a white couple who assumes the trio is up to no good and shoos them from their neighborhood, and even Maddie. But it’s especially impressed on him in a frantic, scary finale involving a police chase, and a coda with Maddie and Emma shows that he’s come to understand, along with Sean, how phony surface liberal conventions about race are.
Cyler and Watkins play off one another well; the former expertly conveys a devil-may-care attitude that conceals an underlying understanding of what he faces as a young African-American in a society that has hardly shed its racist attitudes, while the latter makes Kunle credibly naïve without presenting him as obtuse. They bring genuine affection as well as a hint of irritation to the relationship between the two. Among the supporting players Chacon and Abraham stand out. Carlos is basically a comic-relief character, but Chacon invests him with a sweetly pacifist manner as he tries gamely (pun intended) to smooth over troubled waters, and Abraham’s attempts to mediate between Carpenter’s shrill Maddie and Thompson’s more stable Alice are almost as appealing.
Dávila’s dialogue is often workmanlike rather than inspired, but it has its clever moments, and in only his second feature Williams keeps things moving nicely, helped by the able cinematography of Michael Dallatorre and sharp editing of Lam T. Nguyen. The production design (Jeremy Woodward) and costumes (Icy White) fill the bill without being especially eye-catching, while René G. Boscio’s score brings some edginess to the darker moments while keeping he lighter bits bouncy.
“Emergency” has the familiar feel of a short film stretched somewhat uncomfortably to feature length, but it succeeds in bringing a degree of worthwhile social commentary to the college comedy template.