From the opening scene in “Emergency,” we know we’re in for something bold and provocative—something designed to make us a bit uncomfortable and to THINK, even as we laugh at the absurd situations. This is biting social satire and racial commentary told in the style of a throwback 1980s comedy.
At the fictional and predominantly white Buchanan University, best friends and roommates Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) are attending a class where the white, British professor is discussing hate speech and peppering the air with the n-word—only she says the full word, again and again, with the word projected in large letters on the screen behind her, and she seems almost smugly righteous about it. After all, this is a “safe space”; this is Academia.
“Is that s--- even allowed?” whispers an outraged Sean.
“It’s on the syllabus,” replies the more measured Kunle. “There was a trigger warning.”
“Ask her why is she teaching a class about some s---- she don’t know s--- about,” says Sean.
Amazon Studios presents a film directed by Carey Williams and written by KD Davila. Rated R (for pervasive language, drug use and some sexual references). Running time: 105 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters and available May 27 on Prime Video.
In just a few moments, writer KD Davila and director Carey Williams (expanding his award-winning Sundance short film) establish that this is going to be more than a typical college buddy comedy while also laying the groundwork for us to get to know Kunle, the button-downed, straitlaced son of Nigerian doctors who has landed a coveted spot at Princeton to earn his Ph.D. in biology, and Sean, who is clearly smart but comes from a very different world and relishes his role as a bad (but not terrible) influence to Kunle.
Spring break is coming! Sean lays out the strategy for what he calls The Legendary Tour, in which he and Kunle will hit seven different frat parties on the same night, becoming the first Black students to pull off that feat. Kunle reluctantly goes along with the plan. We’re primed for a One Last Crazy Night comedy in the vein of “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused,” “Superbad” and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” “Project X” and “Booksmart.”
Before the madcap hijinks even get started, however, there’s a major complication, in the form of the teenage white girl (Maddie Nichols) who is passed out on their living room floor. How did she even get there? Is she drunk? On drugs? Is she DEAD? There’s voluminous vomiting in play, so we know she’s not dead-dead, but once she’s finished throwing up, she’s out again. Oh geez.
Kunle and Sean drag their third roommate, a geeky Latino gamer named Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), away from his screens to see if he knows anything about the girl, but Carlos had his headphones on, and he didn’t hear or see anything. Kunle wants to call 911, but Sean says hold on: What’s going to happen when the police arrive and see two Black men, a Brown man and a passed-out white girl? Maybe they should find a white person to call it in, or maybe they should try to return this girl to the nearby frat party that she must have been attending before she wandered off and somehow wound up on their living room floor. They manage to get the semi-conscious girl into their van, thus embarking on a circular road trip that takes them all around town as they try to figure out how to get the girl some help without risking arrest or worse at the hands of the police.
Cut to a rager of a party where Buchanan student Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) has been so busy partying she’s lost track of her little sister, Emma, who has gone missing—and that’s how we learn the identity of the girl who keeps drifting in and out of consciousness in the van as Kunle, Sean and Carlos keep making a bad situation worse and find themselves in real danger more than once. Maddie and her best friend Alice (Madison Thompson) and Alice’s new crush Rafael (Diego Abraham) track Emma’s phone and start following the van.
We know the two groups are going to cross paths. We know the police are almost certain to get involved at some point. And while we’re laughing and cringing at the crazy, sometimes slapstick developments, we find ourselves tensing up in anticipation of the possibly tragic developments that might occur before this night is over.
“Emergency” deftly toggles between comedy and impactful drama, between satire and serious commentary. Donald Elise Watkins as Kunle and RJ Cyler as Sean are outstanding together, especially in a late scene where stereotypes and assumptions are stripped away, and we come to understand the depth of this friendship. Sebastian Chacon has a few showcase moments that elevate Carlos above the typical nerdy sidekick role, and we’d be remiss not to recognize what Maddie Nichols does with the role of Emma, whose reaction when she first regains full consciousness is hilarious and sobering all at once. For all its influences and roots in similar types of comedies, “Emergency” is an original work, very much of its time.