Like trash can punch, college comedy Emergency looks innocent enough but packs a wallop. Its story of friends out for an evening of partying echoes one-crazy-night movies like Booksmart and Superbad, beguiling the audience with drunken antics and sweet depictions of loyal friendship onscreen. However, director Carey Williams’ sophomore effort isn’t just a riotous comedy (though it does earn snort-laughs on multiple occasions). Emergency ably balances its lighter humor with heavy themes about the dangers inherent to merely existing as a Black man in America, where those meant to protect citizens are often the ones threatening their lives. It goes down easy, but it will absolutely knock you on your ass.
Emergency begins with a white college professor snidely offering a trigger warning to her students, then showing a slide with the N-word and then blithely repeating the slur aloud. She turns to the only two Black students in her class, Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), for their insights, singling them out to understand the power of the word and setting the stage for the action on the mostly white campus.
Both college seniors are ambitious: nerdy Kunle is determined to get his Ph.D. after being accepted at Princeton, and fun-loving Sean wants to be the first Black student to complete the Legendary Tour, an epic night of seven parties requiring exclusive tickets. Their wild evening is just getting started when they walk in the door to their apartment to discover a blond white girl (Maddie Nichols) passed out drunk on the floor of their living room. Their Latinx third roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), is oblivious, playing video games. Meanwhile, the girl’s sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) and her friends (Madison Thompson, Diego Abraham) have noticed her absence, and they try to find her via tracking her phone.
If Emergency were centered on white characters, this is where the gleeful hijinks would begin, without much in terms of real stakes. However, Sean, Kunle, and Carlos are men of color, and they know the dangers inherent in calling the police that go far beyond even being arrested for a crime they didn’t commit. Back in the ‘90s, House Party touches on this fear briefly and without much seriousness, but Emergency truly dwells in it, as the trio weigh the young woman’s life against their own. They ultimately decide to take her to the hospital themselves, but the one-crazy-night subgenre hints that diversions and detours abound.
Though Emergency is ultimately sobering, its satirical spin and sharp script from KD Davila means that it’s anything but dour. It’s occasionally scattershot inits targets — and how well it hits them — but sadly, there is an abundance of insidious racism to tackle that there’s a reasonable challenge in focusing. However, there’s a specificity to these characters, endowed by Davila’s screenplay and strong performances across the board. In his role as Sean, Cutler is impish and fast-talking, a source of levity in an absolute nightmare of a situation. For those who have seen him in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Harder They Fall, his engaging screen presence won’t be a shock, but he levels up here. As rocket-scientist-in-training Carlos, Chacon is adorable and wonderfully awkward. Watkins has the most dramatic work of the central trio as the studious Kunle, and his fear is palpable at the threat of what might happen to him. This isn’t just about derailing his future; he’s aware that the choices they make tonight are literally life and death, and all that is visible in Watkins’ eyes.
Director Williams ably balances the tonal shifts, as peril encroaches on what should be a night of fun. This film is more grounded in reality, but Emergency occasionally echoes Get Out in its commentary on the everyday risks faced by people of color, often at the hands of white people who see — or represent — themselves as allies. However, Emergency isn’t just a thematic success; it’s stylish and well-shot, with vibrant use of color, particularly in the party scenes. D.P. Michael Dallatorre has shot a number of horror movies — Brightburn, Studio 666, and Books of Blood — and he’s an asset in capturing the menace lurking everywhere for these three young men.
As funny as it is, Emergency likely won’t linger in viewers’ consciousness for its jokes. Instead, this comedy’s incisive observations about the calculations that people of color have to make daily simply to survive — and the ongoing trauma that inflicts — will haunt audiences like a horror movie.
“Emergency” is in theaters this week, and on Amazon Prime Video on May 27th.