The Sundance-prizewinning “Emergency,” about three friends trying to get an overdosed young woman to an emergency room, never goes the way you expect. It starts out as a politically-minded campus buddy picture. Then it morphs into an “After Hours” or “Something Wild”-type of real-world comedy thriller, about decent but hapless people trying to get out of a bad situation that keeps taking turns for the worse. There are hints it might turn into a straight-up horror movie or crime thriller. The deeper it delves into its succession of incidents, the more that its fascination with friendship moves into the foreground.
“Emergency” is directed by Carey Williams from a screenplay by K.D. Dávila, who previously collaborated on a same-named short film. The short concentrated on the incident that propels the feature: at a Northeastern college, gifted biology student Kunie (Donald Elise Watkins), his troublemaker buddy Sean (RJ Cyler), both Black, and their earnest goofball roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), a Latino, discover a young white female student (Maddie Nichols’ Emma) passed out on the floor of the small house that they share near campus.
The trio have no idea how their unwanted guest got in their house, but agree that if they call 911, they’ll be blamed for whatever happened, and possibly shot by police for no reason at all (a valid fear in America), so they’re better off driving her to a nearby emergency room, dropping her off, and fleeing. So that’s what they do, piling into Sean’s car. Of course the journey doesn’t go as they’d planned. It never does in films like this. And the whole time, Sean is cranky that the odyssey is interrupting their planned epic journey through seven parties at Greek organizations, and Kunie is flipped out because he forgot to close the refrigerator at the lab that contains samples of cultures he’s studying.
The trip takes them into a variety of situations that illuminate the state of racially and politically charged campus life circa 2022, as well as off-campus life. At one point they stop at the home of Sean’s older brother, who just got paroled from prison, and the straitlaced Kunie is so anxious at being out-of-his-element that he can barely speak to them, and has to be ordered to sit down. The group are tailed throughout the night by Emma’s sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) and two friends, who are very slowly tracking them (on a bike and motorized skateboard) from the cell phone that Emma has lodged in the bosom of her party dress. We dread what will happen when sis catches up. The politics of a young, blond white woman desperately pursuing a car containing her sister and three men of color is never far from the center of the film’s mind, and it invests even seemingly uneventful encounters with deadly potential.
The best thing about “Emergency” is its willingness to let a scene breathe and play out at length—a rare quality in an era in which entire movies are edited like trailers for themselves, as if terrified that if they take the foot off the gas for even an instant, stimulus-craving audiences will announce that they’re bored and quit watching. There are a solid half-dozen scenes here built around characters talking to each other that could be self-contained, perfectly shaped short films if you lifted them out of their context.
It’s a certainty that the situations depicted in “Emergency” will date quickly, but that’s a function of how plugged-in Dávila’s screenplay is to the specifics of American college life in the early 21st century. The situations are exaggerated versions of ones we read about in news stories and editorials (often ones in which a writer who hasn’t spent serious time on a campus in decades insists that college politics have become “too woke” compared to whatever they experienced in their youth). The filmmakers have a pitch-perfect ear and sharp eye for encounters that illuminate serious and meaningful issues. But they also invite a bit of fussy self-importance into discussions, such as the opening sequence where Sean and Kunie discuss a white female British teacher’s too-eager examination of the n-word in a class, and throwaway lines like the one preceding the campus pub-crawl where a character is introduced as having met another character during a seminar on Arab-Israeli relations.
Contextual details that most movies would gloss over are explored at length here, always to the film’s benefit. One is the class differential that impedes full bonding between Sean and Kunie. It takes a while for the ugly truth to come out, but Sean doesn’t consider the upper-middle class Kunie to be truly Black, and describes his own, poorer circle as containing “real Black men.” A fed-up Kunie lambastes Sean for throwing away an opportunity at social advancement by partying to excess and not taking his grades as seriously as he should while blaming his personal failures on sociopolitical factors. Race, class, and skin color all come into play in the plot: the trio’s first point of agreement after finding a passed-out white girl on their floor is to try to find another white student who can call 911 on their behalf, because such a person won’t be instantly suspected of having caused whatever harm befell the girl. The police are depicted throughout as a force of chaos that does not care about any of the characters as individuals and that is more likely to cause bodily harm than do good.
Williams handles this complex material with a sure touch, and channels a lot of works by past masters (everyone from Spike Lee and Hype Williams to Wong Kar-Wai and Jonathan Demme) without derivative or show-offy. He has what Pauline Kael, writing on Spike Lee, called “a film sense,” moving confidently in and out of different moods, modes, and points-of-view (notice how he’ll take you out of a third-person scene to give you a little glimpse of what it feels like to be inside a certain character’s mind). This is a dazzling movie, all the more so for being made on a seemingly tiny budget. “Emergency” has a lot to say even though it never carries itself as a film that has a message.