Director(s): Carey Williams
Writer(s): KD Davila
Cast: Donald Elise Watkins, RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon
In 2021, director Carey Williams premiered R#J, his modern spin on the beloved tale Romeo and Juliet. In this film, Williams effectively told the story through the use of social media and different phone screens. The film was met with middling reactions, including my own, with most respecting the new take on a classic – even if it wasn’t exactly necessary.
In 2022, Williams is back at (virtual) Sundance with his new film Emergency. Emergency trades in the gimmicks for powerful commentary regarding race in today’s college landscape, proving Carey Williams is a name to remember. The film begins with Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) going throughout their normal day in college. The tone in the beginning is a comedic one that involves a straight-A student and his rebellious best friend trying to attempt what has never been done by two black men at this school; a multi-party event named The Legendary Tour. Sean has the whole night mapped out – both in his head and literally on a white board – and he and Kunle prepare themselves to be on the “wall of firsts” at their school. However, when Sean and Kunle finally arrive home their front door is open and an unconscious white girl, who we later find out to be named Emma (Maddie Nichols), is laying in their floor. From this moment on Sean, Kunle, and their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) have to find their way to the hospital without coming into contact with the police. At the same time, Emma’s sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) and friends Alice (Madison Thompson) and Rafael (Diego Abraham) track Emma through the GPS on her phone.
The journey this film takes never tries to reinvent the wheel. For a majority of the second act, the story goes from place to place with obvious obstacles in between. This is the part of the story that would have been nice to learn more about these characters as a whole, but the film is more about them as friends rather than them as individuals. I never grew tired or restless during the middle of this film, just felt that the filmmakers had a fully fleshed out beginning and end, and threw together enough of a middle to only just work.
That being said, when the film does reach its climax, it becomes this powerful and emotional moment where you can only expect the worst, but can’t bear to look away. The level of filmmaking from Williams and acting from Watkins were both truly extraordinary. The fear in Kunle’s eyes and the perpetual need to help this girl clash, and through just an expression, we know Kunle both knows his fate and is terrified of it. It takes a special level of acting to display so much with just a look, and the final scene of this film again lets Watkins glance completely shift the tone from happy ending to . Willaims ambiguous ending force the audience to think about what the effect of this situation has on this kid, and also question what is even happening. It is a heart stopping final scene that will stick with you long after the film, and also shows Williams’ knowledge in how to capture an ending.
Donald Elise Watkins, as I previously mentioned, is brilliant in this film, but his counterpart RJ Cyler – who recently turned heads in The Harder They Fall – delivers a brilliant performance of his own. Sean understands the depth of the situation at hand, but he also knows that the worst case scenario isn’t one that is out of the realm of possibilities at any moment. Kunle and Sean have a falling out, which you would expect from a movie like this, but their reunion is a moving and emotional one. They both finally empty what is weighing on them and it is a relatable moment of friendship. Kunle and Sean’s friendship is the heart of this film, and each of these actors remembers that. The arguments they have aren’t surface level, they cut deep, but there is still love for one another that rings true throughout.
Carey Williams direction and KD Davila’s screenplay also stand out. The direction lets the movie play out at just the right pace, and always remembers the stakes. Certain shots were captured in a way that heightened the tension of this film, and the immensely powerful ending became more haunting through the camera movements and framing. Williams is also able to display his commentary through the camera, which is something few directors can effectively get across. The screenplay, while thin in some places, does an excellent job of tying in the commentary in with the humor and horror.
Emergency starts like your average college comedy, but quickly changes to a college horror. Led by an unbelievable Donald Elise Watkins and RJ Cyler, Williams sophomore effort is a powerful one with a heart stopping ending.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.