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Sundance Review: “Emergency” Is a High-Stress Comedy That Sufficiently Juggles Humor and Horror

Written by: Hannah Tran | January 23rd, 2022

Carey Williams, director of EMERGENCY, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Emergency (Carey Williams, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars. 

Best friends Kunle and Sean seem like an unlikely pair. Nearly everyone who interacts with them says Sean is a bad influence on Kunle, a thriving biology student who just made it into a Princeton grad program. Whatever their differences, they have one goal in mind: to be the first Black students to complete a legendary party route on one of their last nights in college. Their plans are immediately upended when they return home to find an unconscious white girl on their living room floor and are forced to ask whether they should call the police in a situation where the optics are not in their favor.

In his follow-up to last year’s Sundance premiere, R#J, director Carey Williams returns with a playful and powerful study of male friendship and racial trauma. Although the classic buddy-comedy elements of it don’t always mesh neatly with the more serious subject matter, Emergency often benefits from this as it is able to show how suddenly one’s safety can be put in danger only because of prejudice.

The single most important part of Emergency’s success, however, is its endlessly energetic characters. Leading men Donald Elise Watkins (Amazon’s The Underground Railroad) and RJ Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) portray brotherly love with striking emotion and confidence. Actor Sebastian Chacon (Angelfish), however, is a surprising standout. As their roommate, Chacon is an endearingly wholesome, funny, and authentic presence. Each of their characters are extremely distinct and yet their friendship is filled with magnetic chemistry that makes sense of it all.

l-r: RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon and Donald Elise Watkins in EMERGENCY, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The developed characters are just one area where the screenplay is able to score its highly emotional moments. Written by KD Davila, Emergency takes a high-stakes premise and squeezes every last ounce of drama from the natural sense of conflict within the premise. The smart dialogue and thoughtful character development here achieve the heartbreaking and the heartwarming.

That being said, the story does feel overlong and some of its commentary can feel artlessly on the nose. And although the very end would be slightly disappointing whether these flaws did or did not exist, it would have undoubtedly been more effective if all that came before it was edited down. Emergency may be about a wild night of college hijinks, but the larger story of love between two best friends is where it thrives. With an absurd premise and extremely realistic characters, Williams has created a flawed but incredibly tense film that handles its heavy subject matter with immense care.

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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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