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Dan Webster reviews "Emergency"

Carey Williams’ “Emergency” shows how race can make a complex situation ever more serious, Dan Webster says in his movie review.

How’s this for a horror-show situation? You’re a college guy on the verge of graduation, and you’re all set to embark on a night of partying.

But this will be no ordinary night. You’re going to attempt what’s known as the Legendary Tour, which entails attending all seven of the top campus parties in a single evening. Doing so will earn you a spot on the college’s Wall of Fame because it’s something no one else has ever accomplished.

But before you can even begin, something weird happens. You return to your rented house only to discover a young woman sprawled on your living-room floor. She is obviously drunk, and you have no idea how she got there.

What do you do? But before you answer, consider this: You and your best friend are Black, your other roommate is Latino – and the young woman is white. Even if all of you were of the same race, the situation would look suspicious. Given the racial disparity, it looks even worse.

So, again, what do you do? That’s the question that director Carey Williams, working from an original screenplay by K.D. Dávila, asks in the feature film “Emergency,” which is streaming on Amazon Prime. Adapted from an award-winning short, also titled “Emergency” – which earned Dávila the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival – Williams’ feature is one of those rarities: an expanded short film with scenes that don’t feel gratuitous.

And that’s largely due both to the care that Dávila put into her screenplay and to the skill that Williams shows in visualizing it.

Donald Elise Watkins plays Kunle, a talented, brainy and shy kid whom one character describes as having Obama potential. R.J. Cyler is his best friend Sean, totally opposite in both temperament and ambition, a stoner who thinks street smarts are enough to get him by. Their roommate Carlos (played by Sebastian Chacon) is a video-gamer and, though far from stupid, the obligatory hanger-on.

These are the three who are confronted by the presence of a young woman they eventually discover is called Emma (played by Maddie Nichols). They don’t know where she came from or why she passed out in their living room, but they know that her being there spells nothing but trouble.

Things go from bad to worse. Kunle, who is concerned with the lab experiment he left unrefrigerated, lets Sean talk him into taking Emma to the hospital, where they plan to simply drop her off. But because of a series of mishaps, they opt to then leave her at one of the campus parties – but even this plan goes awry.

Meanwhile, as Emma wakes up in a panic – thinking that she has been abducted – her sister Maddie (played by Sabrina Carpenter) and two others are in hot pursuit. Pretty soon the police get involved, a high-speed chase ensues and things grow progressively more serious when guns are drawn.

Until this point, much of “Emergency” is played for laughs, though not in a Seth Rogen way. For one thing, Kunle and Sean’s friendship begins to slowly unravel, their plan to live together after graduation falling apart because of Kunle’s acceptance to graduate school at Princeton. For another, the undercurrent of serious social issues remains ever-present.

And given the trio’s bad decision-making, understandable as it is, it’s no wonder that the older sister doesn’t trust them, her suspicions – race-based or not – being fueled by the guilt she already feels for, one, having brought an underage girl to a college party and then, two, leaving her to fend for herself.

A number of movies in the past several years have tackled issues such as sexism and sexual abuse, racism and racial violence (the latter especially directed toward Black men). But by making all the characters feel real – even given the absurd situations they fall into – “Emergency” delivers a far more universal message than that of any number of serious-minded dramas.

The final scene in particular, in which Kunle trembles at the sound of a wailing siren, says everything any of us needs to know about the lasting effects of trauma.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for