Film ‘Emergency’ blends a wild college comedy with dramatic social commentary

One of the more interesting pictures to emerge from a lackluster crop at this past January’s Sundance Film Festival, “Emergency” tries to marry two dissimilar, seemingly incompatible genres with an inevitable dissonance that becomes more provocative the more you think about it. One on hand, this is a wild campus comedy set the night before spring break during a fraternity party marathon with all the boozy, pukey misadventures inevitable in such a setting. At the same time, it’s also a deadly serious drama about the struggle of minority students at predominantly white colleges in an era when even the most innocuous interactions with the police have the potential to prove fatal for young men of color. If you’re wondering how a slapstick farce can possibly score any laughs underneath all that tension, remember that for millions of Americans such worries are simply a fact of everyday life.

The film stars Donald Elise Watkins as Kunle, a brainy biology major on his way to a Ph.D. program at Princeton, where friends assure him he will become “the Barack Obama of fungus.” (His parents of him are both doctors and wish he’d consider medical school instead.) Kunle’s party animal best friend Sean is played by RJ Cyler amid a fog of vape clouds, always sipping from a juice bottle that’s probably about 30% juice. The two roommates have next to nothing in common and probably wouldn’t even be friends if they weren’t two of the only Black students at their preppy, Dartmouth-y college. Here, they have to rely on each other, especially in awkward situations like when an English professor gives a lecture on the history of the n-word and clearly relishes being able to say it aloud in an educational context. (Director Carey Williams stages a very amusing reaction shot in which all heads in this very white classroom nervously turn toward Kunle and Sean.)

RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins in “Emergency.” (Courtesy Amazon Studios)

Their big plans for the evening — okay, Sean’s big plans for the evening — involve the two attending all seven of the major fraternity parties happening that night, a feat known as “the legendary tour” that our heroes aspire to be the first Black students in campus history to complete. The problem is when they come home to find a passed-out white girl face down on their living room floor in a puddle of vomit. Seems she drunkenly wandered in from a party at the nearby Omicron frat house (a name that did n’t have nearly such sinister connotations back when this picture was shot) and she made herself comfortable like a wasted Zoomer Goldilocks.

Kunle and Sean’s third roommate, Carlos (the hilarious Sebastian Chacon), never heard her stumble in because he’s always holed up in his bedroom playing video games and smoking weed, which only adds to the case against anybody daring to call 911. After all, here’s a zonked, underage white girl out of her gourd in a pot-reeking house full of booze and brown dudes. Whatever conclusions the cops come to aren’t going to be good ones. Instead, it’s decided that they’ll take her to the hospital themselves, which is a good idea just so long as they don’t get stopped, pulled over or otherwise intercepted by anybody who might start asking questions for which their answers are unlikely to be believed.

KD Dávila’s script won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance this year, I’m guessing largely on the strength of this fantastic premise. Their perilous journey across campus is like a contemporary, frat comedy remake of “The Wages of Fear,” except instead of transporting nitroglycerin through the jungle they’re carrying a passed-out white girl across an ocean of privilege, which might be even more dangerous. The boys don’t know they’re being pursued by their precious cargo’s older sister (Sabrina Carpenter), a monster of entitlement tracking them via a “Find my iPhone” app and always almost catching up with them whenever things couldn’t possibly look worse.

Sabrina Carpenter in
Sabrina Carpenter in “Emergency.” (Courtesy Amazon Studios)

This is a sharp piece of writing, productively playing on our preconceived notions and offering some substantive character scenes for Watkins and Cyler beyond the obvious archetypes. The evening’s events bring out buried stresses in Kunle and Sean’s friendship and an unforeseen heroic side to Chacon’s Carlos, a fanny-pack-wearing dork who’s also the most sensitive and evolved of the trio. My favorite scene finds him breaking up a fight with the admonition, “Guys, can we please stop calling each other pussies? It’s a little sexist. Not to mention inaccurately, because the vagina is powerful enough to push out a baby. The word you’re looking for is wimp.”

“Emergency” is uneven but necessarily so, allowing the chuckles to catch in your throat whenever facing the very real threat to these boys in the form of those sworn to serve and protect. What keeps it from the pantheon of college comedies is the pacing. Williams likes to linger on talky interactions that, well-written as they may be, run on for long enough to undercut the urgency of their mission. The movie feels like it needed one more pass through the editing bay to really tighten the screws on our heroes, even if that meant sacrificing some of the well-rounded characterizations. It’s a tricky balancing act, this picture, which tries to find the funny side of serious issues while also reminding us that they’re no laughing matter.

“Emergency” opens at the Coolidge Corner Theater and the Kendall Square Cinema Friday, May 20. It starts streaming on Amazon Prime Friday, May 27.

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