So much about “Emergency” impresses.
From the revelation of what it truly is — as opposed to what it briefly is pretending to be — to the story choices made by its writer and director, the film is impactful all the way through its final shot.
Arriving in select theaters this weekend before being available a week later on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming platform, the smart comedy-drama satire is an extension of a short film of the same name made by writer KD Davila and director Carey Williams.
Although ”Emergency” initially wants us to believe it’s about a pair of young Black men out for a night of partying before the spring break of their senior year at college, the film is far more concerned with giving viewers a window into what it can be like to be a young person of color in the United States.
And while no one movie truly could give us that full picture, this is a mighty impressive swing at it.
We are introduced to best friends Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) on the campus of what appears to be a predominantly white college before they attend a class called Blasphemy and Taboo. In the lecture hall, a white professor (Nadine Lewington) comfortably discusses the N-word, projecting it in large type in front of the students and using it liberally. After acknowledging it is making several students uncomfortable, she zeroes in on the two Black people in the room.
“I don’t want to put you two on the spot,” she says, “but you must have something to say.”
Um, they don’t — at least as far as we see — and carry their stunned expressions outside with them when the class is done.
A white classmate, Gillian Rabin’s Bianca — in whom Kunle has a romantic interest — approaches them after class, letting them know she’s on the student senate, in case they “want to, like, start a movement or something.”
As will so many things in “Emergency,” this interaction rings true.
The attention of Kunle and, especially, Sean soon turns to the night ahead of them, during which they plan to become the first Black students at the school to complete the famed “legendary tour” of pre-break parties. Sean has acquired the necessary passes and has the evening mapped out in great detail, but Kunle — by far the brainier and more goal-oriented of the two — also is concerned with finishing a mold experiment in a lab that’s key to his senior thesis.
However, their evening takes a hard turn when they stop at home and find that their roommate, Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), again has left a door to the house open. That’s especially problematic on this day, as they find that a white girl apparently wandered in and passed out on their floor.
Alive but inebriated to the point of being barely responsive, the young woman who eventually will be identified as Emma (Maddie Nichols) may be in need of medical attention, so Kunle decides to call 911. Sean, who also has been indulging in intoxicating substances, thinks they’d be crazy to call the authorities, that three men of color — Carlos is Latino — won’t be treated kindly by any cops who arrive on the scene and see the current dynamic.
To reveal much about where the story goes from here would be to do a disservice to the viewer, but know that Emma’s sister, Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter, who also has a singing career), begins to track her phone and, with the help of two friends, tries to find her after Kunle, Sean and Carlos decide to take her away from their house.
The plot developments crafted by Davila (TV series “Motherland: Fort Salem” and “Salvation”) and Williams (“R#J") feel both organic and well-considered. The pair is less interested in shocking than they are in providing believable yet thought-provoking scenarios. A few important late moments are borderline-perfect and likely to stay with you for a bit, as they should.
Is “Emergency” a flawless film? No.
For the most part, the acting from the cast of largely unknowns is nothing special.
That said, the leads all have their moments, and the friendship of Sean and Kunle — a frustration-filled driver of the film — really comes through largely due to the actors’ work. Plus, Watkins (“Black Box,” “The Underground Railroad”) is very strong in the film’s most crucial moments, and Cyler (“The Harder They Fall”) — whose character can be frustrating if also believable — shines late, as well, if not asked do the same kind of heavy lifting. For his part, Chacon (“Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”) offers just a little comic relief, helping to keep “Emergency” from becoming altogether dispiriting.
Davila and Williams do allow the proceedings to become a little bogged down in the middle, but we can’t complain too loudly considering all they accomplish thematically and in less than two hours. They’re one impressive tandem.
It’s easy to imagine, on the strength of this film, Davila and Williams being able to make another film, one coming with more resources and a stronger cast. That really could be something.
In the meantime, watch “Emergency,” ideally with at least one other person. It’s sure to generate a discussion, a most worthwhile one.
3 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, drug use and some sexual references)
Running time: 1:45
How to watch: In theaters Friday and streaming on Amazon Prime Video May 27
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