One of the last (and as it turns out most well received) movies I saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Carey Williams’ “Emergency”, a feature film adaptation of a short film that Williams debuted at Sundance back in 2018. The movie introduces itself as a college buddy comedy, but it slowly takes a different form over the course of its lively 105 minutes.
Written by KD Dávila, the story revolves around two best friends with opposing world views who have their friendship challenged over the course of one long and wild night. While comedy plays a significant role, the movie soon reveals its deeper thematic interests, namely the bond of true friendship and what it means to be a young black man in America. The only problem is once you have a good sense of its message, it’s pretty easy to see where things are heading.
Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) are two best buddies and roommates at Buchanan University. While the two have a lot in common, they come from very different places. The buttoned-up and bookish Kunle is an aspiring doctor who comes from a wealthy suburban family. The more cynical and hardened Sean (RJ Cyler) comes from a much tougher background. Kunle has already been accepted into Princeton, but he needs to ace his thesis to seal the deal. Sean spends more time vaping and scouting out the local party scene than nailing down his goals for the future.
The two pals have a big plans for the evening – hitting seven legendary campus parties in one night. When they go to their apartment to prep for the “pre-game”, they discover an unconscious white girl (Maddie Nichols) laying in their living room floor. Kunle’s instincts are to immediately call 911. The more pessimistic Sean’s first thought is that once the police see two two young black man and an unconscious white girl, they’ll be arrested or maybe even gunned down.
Attempting to be the voice of reason, a nervous Kunle demands they at least take the girl to the hospital. Stoned and reeking of weed, Sean suggests dumping her on a nearby sorority house’s lawn. These are the kinds of wildly opposing ideas the two throw out for most of the film. With the help of their skittish Latino roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), the trio load the girl into their car. But what follows is a madcap series of good intentions but horrible decisions.
To add another wrinkle, at a nearby party a brash and egotistical co-ed named Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) realizes her sister Emma is missing. You guessed it – Emma is the girl passed out on Kunle and Sean’s living room floor. So she, her incredibly tolerant best friend Alice (Madison Thompson), and Alice’s hunky crush (Diego Abraham) set out to find Emma.
It all moves towards a comically combustible yet poignant finish – one that’s (unfortunately) predictable yet still manages to be powerful. One reason the finish packs such a punch is because of the performances from the terrific young cast. Watkins and Cyler are especially good, possessing a snappy chemistry that enables us to buy into every facet of Kunle and Sean’s friendship (despite getting painfully little in terms of their backstory). And when the ending does come, the two actors give us something that’s both emotionally rich and palpable.
Another of the film’s strengths is found in Williams’ willingness to scrutinize both young men’s perspectives. From Sean’s cynicism to Kumle’s naïveté, both are earnest and very much shaped by their own life experiences. But as the story plays out, we see the strong points and flaws in both worldviews. As a result, it presents a more honest examination, one that takes on its serious real-world subject matter with an open-eyed sincerity.
“Emergency” has a lot going for it and it’ll be interesting to see how big of an audience it attracts (it has already been picked up by Amazon Studios). It doesn’t fully avoid the occasional on-the-nose preachiness and unfortunately it does tip its hand well before we get to the film’s big finish. But Williams mostly stays on course and skillfully maintains his balance between buddy comedy silliness and insightful commentary. He also puts together some scenes that will stick with you, none better than a late conversation between Kunle and Sean that is a masterclass in dramatic writing. It’s also a showcase for these two fine young actors who we should a lot more of in the years to come.