Films that try to mix tones have to walk a very fine line. If you push too hard in the direction of one genre, it can throw off the balance of the film as a whole, making any detours into other genres feel like they don’t belong. But if you’re able to achieve that ideal equilibrium, the result can be magical.
Emergency offers up a variety of different directions it could go in its first 15 minutes. It centers on two college students, Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), who are two of the few Black people at their university. Kunle is academic-oriented, while Sean is looser with his study habits, as evidenced by their level of attention in the opening scene where a professor in a class about hate speech says the n-word multiple times in an academic context.
That scene sets up a film that deftly examines the multiple ways in which racial relations can shift based on the situations in which people find themselves. Sean and Kunle have a plan to complete the “Legendary Tour” — i.e. hitting seven exclusive clubs in one night — that is interrupted when they find a white girl they don’t know passed out in their house. Unwilling to call 911 because they’re afraid of how it might look, the two, along with their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), struggle the rest of the night to come up with a proper solution on how to help her.
Through one lens, the film is a buddy comedy, as Sean and Kunle — obviously great friends — make fun of each other a lot and engage in some activities that wouldn’t be out of place in your typical college movie. But their position as Black people in a mostly white community is an ever-present reminder of their otherness, amping up the drama. And finding the girl adds in a thriller element, bringing into play a whole range of complicated emotions.
Directed by Carey Williams and written by K.D. Dávila (who are expanding on their 2018 short film of the same name), the film features the trio of young men making a series of small, seemingly innocuous decisions that keep them spiraling downward. But the filmmakers shift back and forth between the inherent drama of their unique circumstances to funny moments that arise throughout the night, keeping the film from getting too dark.
The film has a lot of subtle — and some not-so-subtle — things to say about race relations, and not just between white and Black people. The crux of the film relies on the characters and the audience understanding the potential outcome if they simply call 911, and almost everything that happens is an offshoot of that realization. But Sean and Kunle coming from distinct backgrounds adds a layer of tension that also plays a big role in how each approaches the situation.
Cyler and Watkins make for a very appealing duo, having such great chemistry together that you’d think they’d been working together for years. Their characters have much different personalities, but they share a bond that elevates the entire story. Strong supporting performances from Chacon, Sabrina Carpenter, and Madison Thompson also do much to sell the premise of the film.
There have been a lot of movies trying to reckon with the fraught state of race relations in the United States, but Emergency is notable for how it is able to make solid points while telling an entertaining story at the same time. The film is an unpredictable ride, making it one well worth taking.
Emergency is now playing in select theaters. It will debut on Amazon Prime Video on May 27.