'Emergency' review: Reality puts college party plans put on hold

Just as the party is getting started, two friends are faced with a sudden crisis in this well intentioned, socially conscious buddy picture.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Best friends Sean and Kunle are about to have one of those nights that college comedies are built around: they're going to hit parties at all seven Greek houses on campus, a feat known as the Legendary, and they're going to be the first Black students in the history of their school to accomplish it. There's only one problem: who is this White girl that is passed out on the floor of their living room, and why is she there? 

From that premise, "Emergency" plays like a socially conscious "Superbad," as well as a commentary on why Black characters don't get to have their own "Superbad."  

RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon and Donald Elise Watkins in "Emergency."

Writer K.D. Dávila and director Carey Williams, who based the film on their own 2018 short, present their characters with a gauntlet of racial and societal hurdles they must face head on, when all they wanted to do was party. The film often feels bogged down in its messaging, however, its mechanics telegraphed from a script that works backwards rather than propelling its characters forward.

Sean (RJ Cyler) is the cool one and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is his more introverted, studious friend, and both are looking forward — Sean more than Kunle — to their big night ahead. It's one of their last nights together, which isn't immediately apparent to both of them: Kunle is headed off to Princeton the following year, which he hasn't yet told Sean. 

But just as they're ready to start their night, they notice a young girl (played by Maddie Nichols) passed out, face down, in the middle of their living room floor.

Do they call 911? The optics are touchy: they're Black, she's White, and there's no simple explanation for who she is or why she's there. Call the cops? Not an option, not in the current social climate. Dump her somewhere on sorority row? Also a bad look. Together with their kindly stoner roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), they decide to halt their party plans and bring her to the hospital, and they hit a whole bunch of teen movie obstacles — twisted to fit the film's narrative — along the way. 

For instance, during a stopover at a frat house, a bunch of angry frat dudes confuse Kunle for someone else and toss projectiles at his car as it pulls away, busting a taillight in the process. See, the car needs to have a broken taillight for a later plot point, and Dávila retrofits the script in a rather convoluted way to make it happen. It's contrivances and clunky execution like that which impedes the film's overarching good intentions. 

Those issues stockpile as the film barrels toward its overwrought conclusion, never finding the right balance between serious and heavy-handed. 

Cyler ("The Harder They Fall," "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl") gives the more convincing of the lead performances; he's more seasoned than Watkins, who has more emotional baggage to carry. "Emergency" also carries a lot of baggage, making its point by circling it, underlining it and pointing at it with a neon sign. Point taken. Meanwhile, that take on "Superbad" will just have to wait. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Emergency'

GRADE: C+

Rated R: for pervasive language, drug use and some sexual references

Running time: 104 minutes

In theaters, on Amazon Prime Video May 27