It's in the earliest moments of director Carey Williams's astute, pitch-black comedy/thriller Emergency that we're lulled into a false sense of comfort, the easy chemistry between lifelong best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) preparing us for two hours or so of best bud hijinks as two guys preparing for one crazy night of legendary party pursuits. These early scenes are casual and hilarious, though close observation still reveals a satirical bite that begins to leave teeth marks before not too long have passed.
These early scenes are essential. They establish Kunle as a studious nerd somewhat blind to the racist world that surrounds him even among those who may call themselves allies. Sean, on the other hand, has just a wee bit of an edge. While Kunle aspires to a PhD from Princeton, we're just as likely to see Sean bearing down on even more legendary party pursuits after his college degree is in hand.
Still, we like them.
Before Kunle and Sean can get to their first party, they make a quick stop at their home and find that their oblivious roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), has left their door unlocked again.
They also find, much to their dismay, a passed out white girl on their living room floor.
From here on out, K.D. Davila's script goes pitch-black to the point of absurdity without ever feeling absurd.
Two Black men. One Latino.
A seriously messed up situation.
Oh, and obviously the cops cannot be called no matter how innocent, and they are innocent, these men are.
While the guys are deciding what to do, at a frat party a couple blocks away Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) is just noticing that her underage sibling has disappeared while supposedly under her watchful eye. Best friend Alice (Madison Thompson) and Rafael (Diego Abraham) help out as she sets off to find her sister using the tracking app on her phone.
The film that follows becomes increasingly more outrageous and increasingly dark as bad decisions lead to more bad decisions yet, somehow, these bad decisions make just enough sense for us to go along with it. We're simultaneously amused by the lightly comical tone while feeling a consistent tension in our gut knowing this could go incredibly wrong for just about everyone involved each step of the way.
To his credit, Williams never really plays a false card here and that amps up the tension even more.
The chemistry between Kunle and Sean is spot-on, though one always gets the sense that this is one friendship that isn't likely to survive college graduation. There's an underlying tension between the two that feels real. Both men find safety with one another in a world that doesn't offer much in the way of safety for a Black man. We feel this truth in practically every frame. Even when nothing particularly traumatic happens, there's a constant awareness that something traumatic could happen.
And probably will happen.
Cyler, familiar for most of us from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Harder They Fall, is remarkable here with his most impressive performance to date. He provides multiple moments of levity that build into something even more remarkable by film's end. Watkins is similarly impressive, a young man who feels the weight of his entire existence in limbo and his worldview shifting. While Sebastian Chacon is given less to do as Carlos, what he does here is still rewarding as he adds a layer of emotional resonance that feels just right.
It could be said that Emergency tries to accomplish too much, though even when it stretches too far or gets a little messy it radiates with such honesty and integrity and matter-of-factness that you simply can't help but sit in awe of it.
With themes of social injustice and identity wrapping themselves around pitch black satire, Emergency is that rare film with laughs that actually mean something and meaning that feels, at least at times, humorous on a gut-check level. It's a film that works because Williams finds the perfect balance and all the masterful nuances within Davila's script and there's an ensemble cast that nails it all perfectly. Even after the film's nearly tragic climax has played out, there's a sense of dread threatening to tumble down like the building blocks within a Jenga game.
Emergency is available from Amazon Studios and is included in Amazon Prime memberships.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic