Coming-of-age teen buddy comedies mostly follow the same tempo, adding little things to differentiate themselves. 2007’s Superbad and 2019’s Booksmart are examples of a collection of “uncool” characters picking one particular night to make their party dreams come true. Some things don’t work out, and there’s usually a fight between long-time best friends, but mostly, everybody lives happily ever after. One person gains the affection of a guy/girl they’ve been fawning over for years, and there’s some self-revelatory epiphany that occurs to make people better. Everybody goes home happy and makes it to graduation just in the nick of time to get their diplomas.
Emergency follows a similar cadence at first—which director Carey Williams does with intention. Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) are best friends with different focuses. Sean is fixated on being one of the first Black students to complete the “Legendary Tour,” a seven-party chain that might get him and Kunle on the “Hall of Firsts.” Kunle is laser-focused on getting into Princeton for a Ph.D. in science—making sure that his bacteria culture thesis is ready to go. Sean convinces Kunle to let his guard down and prepare for a night of debaucherous fun. However, before all of that can happen, there’s a problem. They find a young white girl named Emma (Maddie Nichols) unconscious in their living room when they get home. Immediately, they ask their video game-playing roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), about her—but he is completely oblivious to how it happened.
The film goes down the route of the three men trying to solve this problem so that they can go about their night. Screenwriter KD Dávila interjects the differences between Sean and Kunle’s upbringing to start a conflict in the right course of action to take. Kunle comes from an immigrant family of African descent, and he believes if they call the police and explain, everything will be fine. Sean, who has a completely Americanized background, thinks it’s a terrible idea. He’s aware of the racial dynamics of how this would look and is immediately against it the idea. That leads to familiar situations found in other comedy movies as these three young men try to help Emma that are meant to hit your funny bone. But Emergency looks at everything with a satirical and critical lens. The tensions between Sean and Kunle grow, with Carlos being caught in the middle. The situation gets even more chaotic when Emma’s sister, Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter), looks for her and finds her whereabouts are constantly on the move with a find-your-iPhone-like app.
Then, the film teeters on a collision course where there’s potential for a fatal mistake to be made based on appearances. Even a scene with a typical comedic setup has a twinge of prejudice experienced in the real world. When the three guys and Maddie stop in a random neighborhood, they are met with hostility—a random white couple mistakes the four as drug dealers and records them on some neighborhood watch app. Williams wants all of this to occur in the world we live in now, not the one that most of these films occur in. In Superbad, there are fake IDs and joyride ride-a-long with cops. With Emergency, even if Sean, Kunle, and Carlos express their honest intentions, there’s no guarantee that Maddie or even the authorities will take them at their words. Given that Emma is inebriated and eventually wakes up to people she doesn’t know, it adds to the confusion that comes to an emotional head in the third act.
Emergency tries to pivot back to feel-good tropes, but can’t shake the repercussions that the night would bring. Not everybody can walk away from the bombastic aftermath of 2012’s Project X as legends. There are parties inside Emergency, but more credence to the plot points of who can enjoy them without any slip-ups. Three minority men who go to a good school and cause no trouble still aren’t immune to the world’s biases against them. It’s something that Kunle’s character has to wrestle with and, at credit’s end, the audience as well.
Read our reviews from Sundance 2022 here.
Photo Credit: Sundance Institute