Emergency [Sundance Film Festival Review]

Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is mild-mannered and intelligent. Sean (RJ Cyler) is boisterous and street smart. The two are college roommates and best friends. On the surface, you wouldn't necessarily expect them to be tight, but the quality of the performances instantly convinces us of their bond. Emergency details what happens to them on one mishap-laden night that transforms both young men forever. The film ranks as one of the highlights of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

With the end of school approaching, the guys are planning to spend a weekend night hopping from party to party. That plan is quickly derailed when they make a pit stop back home, only to find an unconscious girl, Emma (Maddie Nichols), on the living room floor. Neither knows how she got there, nor does third roommate/pot enthusiast Carlos (Sebastian Chacon). Recognizing that she needs immediate medical attention, Kunle suggests calling 911. Sean, however, points out that two Black guys and one Latino guy found with a passed-out white girl in a house that smells like marijuana will not have good optics.

Carlos agrees with that assessment. After tossing around several options, they decide to drive her to a hospital and drop her off. What sounds simple ends up becoming unexpectedly difficult, as a series of setbacks hinder the plan. Sabrina Carpenter co-stars as Emma's sister Maddie, who uses a cell phone tracker to locate her sibling, then to follow her trek with the guys. After catching a glimpse of them, she assumes the worst, just as Sean predicted.

Emergency is firmly in the tradition of “One Wild Night” comedies. The plot is a series of scenarios in which performing a basic act turns increasingly complicated. Two factors set it apart from similar pictures. First, it has a layer of social commentary. For example, when the guys briefly pull over on the side of the road, a white couple confronts them, assuming for no valid reason that they're drug dealers. (The Black Lives Matter sign in their yard gives the sequence an especially ironic sting.) Second, whereas many One Wild Night movies are preposterous, this one stays fairly plausible. What transpires doesn't ask you to suspend disbelief. In fact, staying in the realm of reality is essential to making the premise work.

That's because, while filled with big laughs, Emergency builds to something serious in its last act. We may crack up at a narrow escape from angry frat boys, the odd couple Kunle/Sean interactions, and Maddie's misguided attempt at confrontation, but we also get choked up by where the movie leaves us. Director Carey Williams and writer KD Davila use all the misadventures to point out that people of color are routinely considered guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around. Sean already knows that. Kunle learns it, and he's not the same afterward.

Cyler and Watkins are outstanding, creating a dynamic between their characters that allows the message to hit home just as powerfully as the jokes land. Williams provides a tight pace, making the 105-minute running time fly right by. Emergency is a super-entertaining ride that elicits consistent laughter. It's also an incisive statement about the danger of making assumptions based solely on skin color. The movie represents social satire at its finest.


out of four

Emergency is rated R for pervasive drug use, language, and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.