Emergency finds the danger and darkness within ’80s comedy hijinks in this racially-charged comedy/drama: Sundance Film Festival Review

Emergency tells the story of two best friends, the academic and accomplished Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and the jovial and casual Sean (RJ Cyler). After all the stresses of school, the two are determined to make school history by being the first Black students to complete the legendary frat party tour. With a laid-out plan, seven parties to attend and all the drinks and drugs to savour; what could happen?

But a quick detour from the plan leaves the two in shambles where they discover an unconscious white girl (Maddie Nichols) on the living room floor; lying in her own vomit. Calculating the chances of wanting to complete the tour and the ideological ramifications of what would happen if they were to call the police, the lead characters along with their socially inept roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) are going to have to find away to handle the situation before it gets any worse.

To travel back and forth on the delicate balance of comedy and drama in storytelling can be a difficult thing to achieve. The two genres can be quite disparate on paper but there are two things that ensure that traversing that balance can be done – character and timing. In the case of the comedy/drama Emergency, the performances as well as the contributions from director Carey Williams and screenwriter K.D. Dávila all manage to reach that balance.

The tension-filled story is told well through an impressive sense of timing. The strong theme of ignorance is inherent in the film and it provides a strong dramatic backbone that propels the plot. Ignorance of the world around them like Carlos’ hermetic existence, ignorance of the grit of the world shown through Kunle’s view of the world being just and the ignorance by white people assuming the worst of people of colour while going through assumptions – all of it is well-realized through believable, stirring drama and dark humour.

The characterizations may not be complex on paper but the arcs achieved in the storytelling make a huge impact due to the actors. Cyler is incredibly charismatic as Sean; as his energy is infectious that lends a lot of fun. However, he surprises when he gradually reveals his world-weariness over the world around him. Watkins is great as Kunle; as his reticence, naivety and his valiant nature not only provides a great foil to Cyler’s bravado but manages to become heartbreaking when his naivety becomes irreparably broken. Chacon is fantastic as Carlos as he manages to play a difficult role that could have easily been very annoying in how socially inept he is. Thankfully, his focus on underplaying the role and his sharp comedic chops make Carlos a great character.

The one flaw of the film is the runtime; as it does feel extended due to its elongated ending. But the characters are so sympathetic and the chemistry between Cyler, Watkins and Chacon is so endearing that it basically comes down to having too much of a good thing in the end. Speaking of the ending, Williams and Dávila manage to deliver one that speaks volumes of the world we live in through a striking final shot as well as a darkly funny look into the blurred nature of apologies.

Overall, Emergency is an emotional rollercoaster that earns its plaudits due to its believable and sympathetic characters, its melding of both pathos and humour, its handling of pacing and escalation of tension, its observations on ignorance being the roots of racial conflict and fantastic performances from RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins.

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FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Emergency is screening as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is being presented virtually between January 20th and 30th, 2022.  For more information head to the official Sundance page.

 

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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