Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

► Emergency is in UK cinemas from 20 May and on Amazon Prime from 27 May.

An engaging, crafty and often very funny comedic thriller, Emergency shares a great deal with other examples of the post-Get Out wave of American films that cloak their points about racial politics in the trappings of genre cinema and other familiar forms. Rather than opt for the more horrific and confrontational mode of Jordan Peele or Candyman’s Nia DaCosta, director Carey Williams and screenwriter K.D. Dávila adopt the lighter tone of countless comedies about college students running amok at frat parties and facing problems that are far too complex for them to handle in their compromised conditions. The fact that one character appears in a toga is not the film’s only nod to National Lampoon’s Animal House (1974) even if Emergency’s blend of stoner-comedy hijinks, thriller and buddy-movie tropes and more serious concerns has sadly rarely been attempted since Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008). 

Watching the film’s three heroes – fun-loving slacker Sean (RJ Cyler), straight-arrow Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and pothead gamer Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) – face escalating calamities over the course of a single evening may elicit further memories of predecessors like After Hours (1985) and Adventures in Babysitting (1987), a lineage of which Williams and Dávila are equally conscious. They acknowledge an even earlier inspiration when Carlos looks down upon the stranger passed out on their floor and says, “She’s like Goldilocks and we’re the Three Bears.”

Sebastian Chacon as Carlos with Watkins and Cyler in Emergency

Delivered with a mixture of wonder and horror, the line points to Dávila’s burgeoning reputation as one of the sharpest young screenwriters in the US. Expanded from the award-winning 2018 short that she made with Williams, her feature-length script for Emergency landed on 2020’s Black List of un-produced screenplays. In 2022, she got a further nod when her directorial debut Please Hold, a dystopic comedy about a wrongfully arrested Latino man coping with an automated justice system, earned an Oscar nomination for best live action short.

With Emergency, she and Williams prove to be remarkably perceptive when it comes to portraying the fears and anxieties of young people of colour, whether they lie in the more supposedly sensitive-minded context of a college seminar on the n-word (as in the film’s discomfiting opening scene) or the more potentially deadly circumstances the characters strive so hard to avoid.

Even worries about the latter can be a source of humour, as in one of the trio’s arguments over whether they could’ve avoided their troubles by calling the police in the first place. “How many people actually get shot by the cops?” Kunle asks incredulously. When Sean launches into a story of a cousin who became a victim, the moment devolves into a gag about him getting shot in the ass. (“That’s not funny!” Sean cries. “He got to wear a colostomy bag now!”) 

Watkins as Kunle and Cyler in Emergency

Nevertheless, the film continually makes it clear how their fears are justified and widespread. In one scene, as the friends take refuge on a darkened street, a middle-aged white couple confront them and accuse them of dealing drugs, a cellphone at the ready to record the suspects. When the group go to the house of Sean’s recently incarcerated brother in hopes of borrowing his car, the brother’s friends hilariously flee once they see the girl too. 

This climate of fear exacerbates tensions between Sean and Kunle, with events prompting both friends to consider how matters of race, identity and authenticity impact themselves and their relationship. “The cops don’t know you’re basically white on the inside,” Sean tells Kunle, a reminder that his friend’s newly won Princeton scholarship will provide him with little protection if things go south. Even though the film’s emphasis on the two friends’ emotional dynamic occasionally creates a drag on the momentum, it gives Williams and Dávila an opportunity to explore subtler ideas about masculinity along with Emergency’s more charged topics.

The skills Cyler and Watkins display in both kinds of scenes are a testament to the energy and charisma of Emergency’s young cast members. It’s thanks to them that the movie sustains its high spirits through wobblier scenes that are hampered by notes that land with more finesse elsewhere. Some of the funniest moments belong to Sabrina Carpenter, who plays Maddie, the sister of the stranger and the friends’ fiercest nemesis. Until she too must contend with thorny questions of race and privilege, Maddie’s combination of vengeful-sorority-sister and rampaging-Karen makes her an even greater danger to our heroes than any law enforcement official.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

Find out more and get a copy