The opening night of Sundance brings with it much anticipation and an unlimited potential for surprise. The honor of opening the festival has been given to some of the greatest Sundance hits of all time, ranging from Whiplash to last year’s breakout smash CODA.
Emergency, directed by Carey Williams was the sole representative from the US Dramatic Competition to get the Day One honor and it certainly left an impact on the ones lucky enough to screen.
Emergency centers around college roommates and best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) and the dramatic actions that occur on one fateful day. The film sets the tone for what lays ahead in its first scene when in class the two are singled out as the only two African-Americans in a class when discussing the “N” word. At that moment it becomes clear this movie has something to say.
The two have big plans for the Friday night before Spring Break but that all goes off the rails when they make their way home to find their Latino roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) has left the door open. Behind that door they discover a white underage high school girl passed out on their floor and a massive comedy of errors and poor judgement ensue with life or death consequences.
What unravels from there is a film that is a mash up of a thriller, comedy, and almost a B-horror film. While the film isn’t perfect and at times it can be incredibly frustrating, Emergency has something to say and when it gets there, it hits hard.
The film is absolutely driven by the chemistry of its two leads Elise Watkins and Cyler. Cyler made waves several years back at Sundance in Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl, and he shines in this film as the comedic relief and bringer of chaos Sean. Donald Elise Watkins may be the early frontrunner for breakout actor of Sundance 2022. The character arc of Kunle and the emotional climax of the film is heartbreaking and will stick with me long after the festival closes.
Director Carey Williams, who adapted Emergency from a short he brought to Sundance a few years back has some obvious talent and brings the film home near flawlessly in the end. Unfortunately it takes a lot of work and patience from the audience to be OK to get there. The decisions by the leads and actions to get to the emotional payoff are at times borderline infuriating and makes you question the logic of the people you like so much.
That being said the final act of the film is incredibly powerful and brought to mind a similar emotional gut punch that Fruitvale Station brought many years ago at this same festival. Emergency is an impactful narrative dealing with race and perspective. Two topics that are so dominant in the modern world and media, but topics that are explored in ways I am not sure I have seen before. While this film might not be perfect, its message is important, and one that will resonate with any that stumble across this film. I am anxious to see what comes next from this very talented young team.