Review: ‘Emergency’ juggles college comedy, serious social drama on Amazon Prime Video

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Emergency'

In 2018, the short film “Emergency” won prizes at Sundance and South By Southwest.

Now, “Emergency” has been expanded into a feature film on Amazon Prime, which at times feels stretched out over its 105 minutes, but is nonetheless a thought-provoking ride if you can handle its rare juggling act of comedy, drama, thriller and social commentary.

The story follows two college seniors, the wise-cracking Sean (RJ Cyler) and the studious Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), who hasn’t told his buddy yet that he’s been accepted into Princeton pending his thesis science experiment. He must keep his molecules at a certain temperature in the lab refrigerator, but he keeps worrying that he forgot to lock the door.

The duo embarks on one last night of partying dubbed “The Legendary Tour,” a bender across all of the different frat houses. However, when they stop to visit their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), an unexpected situation confronts them with a choice: should they call the police? Or is it more dangerous for three people of color to go to the cops?

The young cast is very affecting, particularly Watkins (“The Underground Railroad”), who plays the straight man trying to keep his nose clean, while Cyler (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) is a delicious instigator, sipping drinks in class and planning their partying on a white board. Both get emotional by the end discussing PTSD from the night’s events.

Their supporting cast is gleefully along for the ride. Chacon (“Mr. Robot”) starts out as a bong-smoking stereotype before earning our sympathy when he realizes that his “friends” didn’t get a third ticket to the tour. Sabrina Carpenter also appears as Maddie, a tenacious college student playing iPhone detective searching for her little sister (Maddie Nichols).

Curiously, the film sets up two love interests that we think are going to factor into the movie more than they actually do. Kunle doodles pictures of his class crush Bianca (Gillian Rabin) and even gets her number, while Sean makes eyes toward Asa (Summer Madison) in the dorm hallway, but neither relationship really amounts to much in the grand scheme.

These potential romances are mere red herrings by screenwriter K.D. Dávila, who earned an Oscar nomination for her live-action short “Please Hold” (2020) the same year that the feature version of “Emergency” made the Black List of the hottest unproduced screenplays. It would go on to receive the Waldo Salt Award at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

You can see why during humorous banter between the two main characters, trading quips about the college party life, then exchanging uncomfortable glances as a white professor lectures about the use of the “n” word. Dávila also weaves in a clever double meaning of temperatures rising on both Kunle’s biological “cultures” and society’s racial cultures.

Granted, not all of the jokes land. In the opening scene, Sean is engrossed in his phone walking across campus and blurts out “You b*tch!” after reading a text message, only to look up and apologize to two girls passing by. It would have been a funny sight gag, but the girls don’t look at him until after he apologizes. It would have been worth another take.

Likewise, some scenes last too long, playing the same beats too many times. The inciting incident between Sean, Kunle and Carlos is a powerful launching point for the story, but they linger far too long debating whether to call the cops. This debate is crucial to the theme, but it should have been trimmed, feeling like a short film stretched into a feature.

Nitpicking aside, director Carey Williams remains one to watch, having been hailed by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the New Faces of Independent Film. His directorial talents are most on display during a fun sequence where Sean and Kunle plan their epic party night, intercutting visions of how they imagine the night going at the various frat houses.

In the end, “Emergency” won’t be for everybody. If you go in expecting a “Hangover” style comedy, you might find the seriousness of Act 3 jarring. Conversely, it’s a little too flippant to be a serious drama. However, if you go in ready for shifts in tone, you might just come out appreciating a genre-bending coming-of-age flick that actually has something to say.

3.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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