Full disclosure: The credits for the Sundance-award-winning Emergency include the name of a dear friend of mine. Her good work is earning her opportunities to work on many impressive films and television series, so I’ve been looking forward to this one. I don’t believe that the involvement of friends of mine in film productions has ever swayed my opinion of the films themselves; my reviews of those films have sometimes made things… awkward between us. But that’s the cost of integrity. So here we go.

If you were anything like me when you were a kid, you probably loved to read and re-read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I suspect that’s where my love for what I’ll call calamity comedy (calamedy?) began — movies like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours or the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, films that begin with something unfortunate or unfair happening to the protagonist, and then one problem on top of another takes everything from bad to so much worse. We laugh because we know the feeling. We’ve had days like that. It’s likely we’ve had years like that. That’s what makes the book’s refrain “I think I’ll move to Australia” funny. Who among us hasn’t wanted to pack up and move out of our own troubles?

But in America right now, it seems we’re trapped in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad decade, and the troubles keep coming. It’s hard to laugh about them without feeling cynical or, worse, hard-hearted.

Emergency has all the makings of a great calamity comedy. I mean, what would you do if you and your best friend were college students who found an unconscious girl on your living room floor, limp as a noodle, reeking of booze, and face-down in a pool of her own vomit? Would you call 9-1-1? Would you carry her to your car and get her to a hospital?

In Emergency, Madde Nichols plays Emma. She is the emergency. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

The answer might seem easy for you, reader… if you’re white. But our two panicking protagonists are black. It’s the unconscious girl, who might in fact be dying, who is white. See the problem? Calling the cops doesn’t sound like such a good idea. Taking her to the hospital — that sounds risky too. Anywhere cameras can catch them will make things look bad for everybody. And driving her to one of that night’s big parties and laying her down on the lawn? Absolutely not.

Perhaps you’re thinking that this doesn’t sound like a very comical situation. You’re right. It isn’t.

The last time we followed a bunch of guys from drinking party to drinking party, it was Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, and their mishaps increased until they found themselves trying to survive in a dystopian world after aliens blew up civilization. This time, the stakes are so much more believable and, thus, more sobering. Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is a wiz-kid biology student with a bright future, and we don’t want him to stumble onto the wrong side of the law and blow his big opportunities. But Kunle’s mischievous friend Sean (RJ Cyler) wants him to gamble it all to complete something known as “The Legendary Tour,” hitting a marathon of parties in one night. And then there’s the perpetually stoned Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), a buffoon who they hope to avoid — and so, of course, against their best efforts, he ends up tagging along.

Sean (RJ Cyler), Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) ponder their options from bad to worse. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

So, at first glance, no — this doesn’t sound funny. The stakes are too high.

And yet, while the crisis is so plausible and the stakes so high that we feel meaningful suspense, the filmmakers find plausible humor within these volatile friendships as they careen from mishaps that range from “terrible” to “horrible” to “no good” to “very bad.” We aren’t laughing at the gravity of the situation; we’re laughing in recognition at the absurdity of how hard it is to — yes, in honor of Spike Lee, whose influence on the filmmakers is obvious, I’ll say it — do the right thing. As these three amigos try to figure out who the unconscious Emma (Maddie Nichols) really is, how to save her life, and how to get her back where she belongs, they are prone to making the worst decisions with the best intentions, and their goofy camaraderie inspires laughs that break up the tension without ever minimizing the seriousness of the crisis. 

As if that isn’t enough for us to track, the filmmakers skillfully braid the young mens’ adventures with another storyline about Emma’s sister Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) trying to track her down with help from her more level-headed friend Alice (Madison Thompson), Alice’s new flame Rafael (Diego Abraham), and the power of Apple’s phone-tracker. These three are almost as funny and endearing together as Emma’s anxious would-be rescuers.

Who you gonna call? Carlos, Kunle, and Sean find their friendships tested. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

Perhaps the sense that there’s something new, fresh, and authentic about Emergency comes from the rare combination of an African American director — Carey Williams, impressive with his debut feature — directing a screenplay by a Mexican-American woman: K.D. Dávila. That shouldn’t be a big deal in 2022, but it is. And I hope they work together again. Williams and Dávila cook up engaging chemistry between colorful characters, zigzagging between plot threads efficiently; every character matters, every twist makes pretty good sense

Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com is right on when he highlights one of the movie’s strong points:

The best thing about Emergency is its willingness to let a scene breathe and play out at length—a rare quality in an era in which entire movies are edited like trailers for themselves, as if terrified that if they take the foot off the gas for even an instant, stimulus-craving audiences will announce that they’re bored and quit watching. There are a solid half-dozen scenes built around characters talking to each other that could be self-contained, perfectly shaped short films if you lifted them out of their context.

Sean watches, amused, as star student Kunle fails a test of impressing a young woman. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

It works until it doesn’t. There is so much caper potential here. But as it has become daily news to hear about racism rampant in police departments and the shoot-to-kill/ask-no-questions habits across America, the film cannot help but struggle to balance all that it has on its mind. And the more the storylines spiral downward toward an inevitable convergence that we know is probably going to involve law enforcement, the more we can feel the genre needle tipping toward Timely & Relevant Drama (think The Hate U Give, which also featured Carpenter) and away from either Calamity Comedy (like Booksmart) or Horror (like Get Out). That’s not a failure — these open wounds of injustice deserve close attention. The high-tension crescendo works pretty well, thanks to some predictably presumptuous cops. But as the film’s fun-house mirror stabilizes and confronts us with a soberingly familiar reflection of America in 2022, it becomes heavy-handed. And it never really successfully recovers. Comedy is a declaration of hope for order in the face of disorder. And the disorder we see in extreme close-up here, well… who among us see much hope for repairing it?

After that, the film stumbles in search of a resonant way to wrap things up. The multi-stage epilogue tries several ways to make us laugh and several ways to make us cry. But it’s trying too hard. Even Cyler, good as he is, can’t wring any genuine pathos out of these scenes.

Kunle makes a plea for help at one of the local parties. That does not go well. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

The actors are all strong, but it’s a problem that Cyler (who also starred in The Harder They Fall) is such a born movie star — he owns the scene whenever he’s onscreen, and shines so bright next to Watkins’ Kunle that the imbalance is distracting. Similarly, Sabrina Carpenter who plays Maddy really sells us on her substance-amplified panic as she tries to track down her missing sister. The rest of the cast don’t have the charisma to keep up.

But these are quibbles. There’s a remarkable cleverness to the writing throughout. I’m particularly fond of how Kunle, terrified that he might have spoiled his research project back at the lab by leaving a fridge door open, says over and over again “I just wanna check my cultures.” That ongoing refrain might be hinting at any of the film’s myriad levels of social commentary.

Though this feels like a “first film” for almost everyone involved, there’s a current of truth and sincerity running through it — the pulse of a heavy heart. In its best moments, Emergency makes us think about the dilemmas that young black men in America must frequently face. What do you do if you need to call the cops but you know that the cops might end up being an even greater danger than whatever is driving you to call them? The movie doesn’t claim to know the answer. I don’t know either.

And somehow, I don’t think moving to Australia is the answer.