Consider me delightfully surprised. We are at an interesting point for films about “social issues,” aren’t we? On the one hand, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to even out opportunities, accessibility, and equity regarding so many oppressed demographics in our world, particularly in the arts industries. It can be a draining, terrifying prospect to consider how rigid and resilient so many structures of callous hegemony have proven to be, even after widespread movements and “promises” of “change,” however flimsy the promise or the change. On the other hand, these movements have effected some degree of progress in certain places, including a heightened awareness of issues that has produced some endearing examples of Hollywood actually trying to help.
Just as devastating in a certain regard, however, is how slipshod and half-hearted so many of these “aware” products have been. Films greenlit and often celebrated for their “relevance” are likely produced by and certainly only appeal to the kind of person who says things like “everything going on right now” without having the foggiest idea why these movements matter to people. It’s so easy for mega producing houses to read the room and decide it’s time to churn out some stories foregrounding Black people that directly address themes like “trauma,” “injustice,” and “the struggle”, etc. that we often forget how low a bar this is to clear.
But Emergency miraculously bucks this trend. It could easily have been a hallmark example of cringe-worthy misery-mining that we see so often — the kind of “ooh, what if we talk about BLM like this!” project that has seen more hamfisted and sloppy treatment of serious issues than it has actual successes. Instead, screenwriter K.D. Dávila has sewn together a dazzling and moving tapestry of bitter truths and hilarious interactions that grows and shifts as its story develops. Handled well by director Carey Williams’ eye for youthful physicality and both comic and emotional timing, Emergency is a very rare modern-day success in blending coming-of-age gravity with side-splitting comedy and hair-raising energy. You will be talking to the screen as it talks right back to you.
The setup is so germane for intriguing questions that it’s a miracle it hasn’t been dramatized before. Two Black college seniors — the kind, book-smart, buttoned-up Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and the hangdog, roguish Sean (RJ Cyler) — are about to celebrate their friendship and the end of their time in undergrad together by completing a legendary party-crawl over the course of one sure-to-be-crazy night (illustrated by an imaginary montage set to the laudable choice of Channel Tres’ “Topdown” — what a track). However, their quick stop back at their off-campus house changes everything. They find a catatonically drunk teenage white girl on their floor, and as anyone who has been even remotely listening to the general dynamic between young Black men and the authorities will know, there are more than a few ways the situation in which these characters find themselves could end horribly — or even fatally — for them. And yet immediately, Kunle’s compassionate nature begins to clash with Sean’s much more cynical worldview, with their frenzied (and often hilariously, refreshingly blunt) conversations quickly revealing a naïveté beneath Kunle’s kindness and a clear-eyed intelligence behind Sean’s reticence.
As events spiral wildly out of control, Emergency brilliantly doubles down time and time again on its refusal to shy away from horrid, difficult truths. Most of the developments are hugely funny on one level and rather distressing on another: as their sweet but somewhat trying roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) gets involved, the three boys genuinely try their best to help the girl recover but face all manner of obstacles any young non-white men will inevitably have to face on a day-to-day basis — obstacles that can cause frustration and dehumanization on any given day, but which cause panic and extreme tension when there’s an unconscious white girl with them. As people come looking for the girl, and the schism in Kunle and Sean’s operating philosophies grows greater and greater, Dávila’s script ingeniously builds narrative and ideological tension between a faith in the fabric of society and a grittily defensive revelation that humans are simply not beholden to their better angels. (Her work is an excellent choice as the festival’s Screenwriting Award winner this year.)
Many scenes feel almost predetermined to end on a certain tried-and-true note, whether that’s throwing up one’s hands at how crazy white people are or dramatically shedding a tear at how awful society is, friends earnestly supporting each other through thick and thin, or even a heretofore awful, racist white character learning that she’s done wrong and ought to be a better person (cue the white audience’s applause). But Williams, Dávila, Watkins, Cyler, and the entire team are magnificently clued in to how disappointing and regressive those notes can be in a day and age that requires fuller, harsher planes of thinking. Every single one of these scenes defies expectations and either cheekily or devastatingly refuses to play the game the way it’s normally played. A late-stage reconciliation that might have been the gleaming cornerstone of a film like Green Book or The Help is breathtakingly cut off mid-conversation, and every millisecond of that halt is narratively and atmospherically earned. Characters whose sharper, more distrustful worldview may have been dulled, softened, or excised altogether in a let’s-all-just-get-along-style story are exonerated and given space to see their suspicions justified in ways I have not seen before onscreen. Multiple climaxes each pay off with multifaceted implications and dynamics rarely handled with this much sensitivity, humor, and aplomb, including a rapturous scene between Watkins and Cyler that may boast two of the finest male performances of this year’s Sundance.
Perhaps most strikingly, where so many other crasser stories would cast her as the hero, an entire character whose quest to rescue the girl from what she assumes is the kind of situation for which her whiteness has subconsciously prepared her is masterfully reconfigured as a complex and ultimately unconscionable villain. It’s a marvelous achievement in subversion and the forging of spine-tingling new paths.
Emergency excels by proving itself grippingly attuned to both ends of this lightning rod subject matter. It’s a film about trauma and injustice and the struggle, no question, but it strikes a balance between taking these matters seriously and coming off hoary and miserable. It’s unfailingly a great time, even as it dips into some deeply haunting imagery and confrontations. Each one of these more chilling aspects, however, serves either a witty or wise function towards painting a realistic tapestry of how things really are. It’s a frighteningly realistic film, in fact, with barely a single note of heightened drama — and that’s perceptibly the intention, as the film regularly challenges you as a viewer to find fault in its spine-chilling logic. There is none to be found.