Carey Williams’ Emergency is a piercingly sharp and witty comedy that quickly turns into a serious drama, but it can’t quite balance the two satisfyingly.
Dramedies might be the hardest type of films to pull off. Balancing both drama and comedy is no easy feat; lean too much into comedy and it waters down the serious bits, but invest too much into the emotional stuff and the comedy feels out of place. Carey Williams attempts to pull this tricky balance off with his new film, Emergency, which is based on his short film of the same name.
Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) are two college students planning an epic night out. It all gets out of control when the two guys, both Black, find an unconscious and unknown, white, young woman passed out in their living room. Kunle is keen to call the police or an ambulance, but Sean stops him, saying the cops will likely shoot before asking questions.
What follows is 90 minutes of Sean and Kunle, aided by their friend Carlos, trying to get the girl to a hospital. Easier said than done, but Williams’ film makes everything seem even harder. The film attempts to provoke and shock from its first moments; the guys attend a lecture where a white, British woman has projected the N-word in large letters up on the board and asks for the class’ opinion on the word.
It’s uncomfortable, but almost every second of Emergency is also wildly entertaining and accurate in its societal observations. Sean’s fears are entirely justified and valid, his pleading makes sense, but there’s still a nagging feeling that maybe the guys could have – and should have – acted differently. Some of the comedic moments feels uncomfortable as the guys drag an unconscious girl around and things get awfully serious very quickly towards the end. The balance just doesn’t work as well as it should and the themes aren’t fleshed out and then developed clearly enough.
The film drags badly in the middle, where very little happens. Williams frustratingly keeps cutting to Maddie, the drunken girl’s sister as she attempts to find her. Played by Sabrina Carpenter, Maddie is irritating and melodramatic, screaming down a phone to an emergency operator that she’s not racist just because she’s described her underage sister getting in a van with Black and Latino men. She has a point, but it’s lost in all the hysteria of the scene, like most of the insights that Emergency has.
While the film goes on a little too long – this is an 85-minute film at best – the ending is arresting. Its effect is weakened by the fact that after the climax, there’s still another 15 minutes left in the film, which does absolutely nothing for the overall narrative.
Emergency still works as a star-making vehicle for its young cast. Cyler is all fire and brimstone as Sean, but it’s Watkins who truly shines here. His performance is nuanced but never over the top and completely compelling. The two men also have believable chemistry and their friendship feels real and like it has history to it.
Williams shows much talent and promise with Emergency, even if the film is a little hit and miss thematically. There’s much to enjoy in Emergency, but it’s let down by its own smugness. It’s not quite as sharp and intelligent as Williams seems to believe, but it’s still a very entertaining thrill ride.