Sundance 2022: Emergency Is Gripping Social Horror

Image Courtesy of Sundance

We live in strange and uncertain times. Impossible as it may seem, I’m hopeful it’s one on the brink of change, though I’ll admit, I struggle with the weight of seeing people’s resistance to progress. It takes very little effort to do the right thing. Yet, somehow, morality has been intrinsically politicized, especially if you find the color of your skin leaves cause for concern. Carey Williams’ film Emergency places imperative in its title, for the central plot point of its characters’ journey to the hospital and the need to address an increasingly dangerous societal hypocrisy. Emergency was one of the absolute best films I saw at Sundance this year. Uniquely packaged under the guise of a college party comedy, this dark story places extreme pressure on its main characters, Kunle (Black Box’s Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (The Harder They Fall’s RJ Cyler), in a situation that wouldn’t exist if they happened to be white. 

On synopsis alone, Emergency doesn’t appear to be a horror film, with its introduction indicative of Van Wilder or Animal House. Wanting to break a campus glass ceiling, Kunle and Sean hatch a plan to get their names on a prestigious honors wall that acknowledges campus firsts by People of Color. Kunle and Sean attempt to party at every frat house on campus in a single night, something known as “The Legendary Tour,” similar to The World’s End’s golden mile, and have their faces grace the hall as legendary partygoers. 

The first clue Emergency is something more comes as friends Sean and Kunle sit in a class taught by a white British woman discussing the power of the “n” word. Kunle approaches the course academically, while Sean finds it to be disrespectful. The tension in the class and the dialogue following show how different  Sean and Kunle’s backgrounds are, boasting two unusual best friends that don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. That divisional upbringing comes into focus when Kunle and Sean arrive at their on-campus house to find an underage white girl (Maddie Nichols) passed out on the floor. A moral dilemma ensues if they should call the police or not, with Sean hinting that the situation may not look as innocent to the cops as it realistically is. 

Sean rest his shoulder on a smiling Kunle in Emergency
Image Courtesy of Sundance

The argument Sean presents in Emergency is based on what we’ve seen occur time and time again in the news without resolve. Whenever we see these stories where police are called to situations involving young People of Color, the news ventures into grim territory with an outcome pertaining to injury or death. The pattern of police encounters ending in violent death has become a regularity in the United States. Though the current data shows a weird drop-off in every race measured in 2021, the rate of unknown backgrounds grew by nearly four times, according to Statista data. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. The data also suggests the rate at which Black individuals were fatally wounded to be nearly two and a half times more likely per million versus their white counterparts (based on statistics over the last six years). Hispanic individuals ranked second on the list, at 1.86 times more than white individuals.

Even without data, I think you can understand the circumstance. Their housemate Carlos (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels star Sebastian Chacon) gets roped into the matter as well when the pair think the girl might be a friend of his. After some debate and finding no cell phone on the girl they’ve dubbed “Goldilocks,” the three decide their best options are to either sneak her back to one of the many ongoing frat parties or bring her to the local hospital emergency room. The film ongoingly emits a tale of suburban horror through its characters’ eyes about a society that sees them as the three bears in this “Goldilocks” scenario, with a social commentary based on the fear that the police are ready to treat them like animals and shoot them to save the girl. 

Writer KD Davila won the special jury award at Sundance for her 2018 short film of the same name on which the film was based. This full-length Emergency is just as powerful. Though presenting as comedic, every chaotic situation becomes a step in the wrong direction for these three friends that only want to do the right thing. Kunle, Sean, and Carlos are met with a lack of empathy and understanding at every turn, making their journey that much more challenging. As Emma’s sister (Sabrina Carpenter) and her friends (Madison Thompson, Diego Abraham) search for the lost partygoer, things get more claustrophobic. You can feel the horror of a judgmental reality in perceived notions of kidnapping and drug sales, busted taillights, prying suburban eyes, and the tokenism of “Black Lives Matter” signs that are only there for show.  

Actors Watkins and Cyler’s on-screen characters are odd together, yet their dynamic works effortlessly. Adding Chacon to the group only helps make all of them more likable. There’s a sense of genuine camaraderie between the three actors throughout Emergency that definitely translates into the final product. I’ll go ahead and say it—I thought the whole cast was pretty amazing. I mean, you even have to hand it to Creepshow’s Maddie Nichols, who is almost a ragdoll for a large portion of the film and continuously made to vomit on camera. Compounded with Carey Williams’ skillful direction, Emergency hit like a freight train. It isn’t easy to incorporate that level of emotion for all of your main characters. Still, I found myself laughing one second and truly worried about them the next, a particular testament to Davila’s magnificently layered script.

Sean and Kunle sit up front while Carlos sits in the back of a van in Emergency
Image Courtesy of Sundance

If you don’t feel anything during Emergency’s most perilous moment, then I can assume you don’t have a soul. During the climax, I covered my nose and my dropped jaw in my cupped hands. The heart-stopping image now seared behind my retina for the rest of time. Faced with a monumental choice, Kunle stands his ground while coming face-to-face with extreme prejudice. It’s powerful, and Watkins’ performance and Williams’ direction in the scene convalesce exquisitely to produce a shockingly captivating scene. All at once, you realize these harrowing decision points are daily life for many people who just want to go about their day, having to weigh a host of risk factors that may unintentionally and empirically lead down a path of confrontation or avoidance. In the final moments of the film, a distant sound bears the trauma the night has wrought, bringing the characters into a memory-induced panic, similar to the terror of Get Out’s sunken place. It’s heartbreakingly uncomfortable, and that reality is the true terror of Emergency.  

Emergency is currently being played as part of Sundance Film Festival.

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Written by Sean Parker

Sean lives just outside of Boston and loves all things horror.

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