This weekend, Northwest Film Forum is screening several films—including this one!—as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival's Satellite Screen program. Learn more about the program here.
Here's a scenario: Imagine you're in college. You return home and find someone in your place. They're blackout drunk, unresponsive, and possibly needing medical attention. Stressful, yes? Now somehow ramp up that stress x1000, make it a movie, and call it a comedy. Well! That's Emergency, a new film that just premiered at Sundance and plays this weekend at Capitol Hill's Northwest Film Forum.
An expansion on director Carey Williams' 2018 short film of the same name, Williams has created a work that walks a very fine line between darkness and levity. It's a chaotic but straightforward experience disguised as a college buddy comedy, about three friends trying to do the right thing. It's not for everyone, but I think its ambition makes it still worth seeing.
The film centers on friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler), who plan to have a wild night out by hitting all the Spring Break parties happening on campus at their school. They want to let loose after a long day—a day that included a professor saying the N-word multiple times, who then singled them out as the sole Black students in their class to see if they wanted to weigh in. This experience is the first of many calling attention to the faux progressiveness that Kunle and Sean encounter every day.
The day's events come to a head when the friends discover a white girl who has drunkenly wandered into their home and passed out in her vomit. Afraid that someone will blame them for the situation, the two friends set out with their housemate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) to drive her to the hospital without drawing too much attention to themselves in the process. What follows is a night of cascading catastrophe as everything that could go wrong very much does go wrong. With writer KD Davila, Williams has created a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine of disaster that is messy in its plot but committed in its execution.
A key aspect of this is how the characters anchor the story—all three leads navigate a breadth of emotional range. Sundance alum Cyler, in particular, gives a determined and dynamic performance. Regrettably, many side characters are less up to the task, but whenever the film gets back to the main three friends, things pretty much get back on track, even as the story itself goes off the rails.
Emergency is ready to test its audience's willingness to endure a kind of relentless calamity. Many scenes are bold, and many risk falling into recklessness. The film often over-relies on cringe comedy—and when I say cringe, I mean squirm in your chair and want to leave your body type of cringe. I found myself getting up and pacing around, uncertain if this would manage to come together. Thankfully, there's a sprinkling of more subtle jokes and pointed imagery that temper the cringe elements enough to balance it out, serving as a chaser to a stiff drink.
Will these characters make it out of this night in one piece? I expect some viewers will tap out before finding out. If you can make it through, the film will leave you gasping for air and invested in seeing these well-intentioned characters try to do right in a world gone completely wrong.
You can watch Emergency virtually via Sundance and in-person at the Northwest Film Forum on Jan. 28.