Emergency is like Weekend at Bernie’s, but with three major differences. For starters, Emergency is actually funny and infinitely wiser. Where Bernie was dead, this film’s immobile figure is only on the verge of death. Most notably, the characters who need to haul the unconscious body around are people of color. With this change, the quirky plot of Weekend at Bernie’s takes on a much timelier message. That’s not to say Emergency is without the hijinks that come with the college comedy formula. As the plot unfolds, though, the film matures into something more akin to Blindspotting.
Donald Elise Watkins delivers an enthralling breakthrough performance as Kunle, a Black college student with a promising future. RJ Cyler of The Harder They Fall and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl continues his hot streak as Sean. While Kunle is book smart and Sean is street smart, they balance each other out surprisingly well. With change looming on the horizon, the two decide to leave their mark on campus with an epic night of booze and partying. Upon arriving home, though, they find somebody else has beaten them to it. Passed out on the floor is Emma (Maddie Nichols), an inebriated girl they’ve never seen before. Their gamer roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) is equally oblivious.
If the main characters were all white dudes, the solution would seem simple: call the police. While this is Kunle’s first instinct, Sean knows that getting falsely accused and arrested wouldn’t even be the worst-case scenario. It’s an unsettling situation that leaves the audience wondering, “what would I do in their skin?” The three decide to pack Emma into the car and drive her to the hospital, keeping their fingers crossed that they don’t get pulled over. As if this isn’t nerve-wracking enough, Kunle needs to get back to his lab to save his thesis project. For all the anxiety-riddled moments, the rapport between Kunle, Sean, and Carlos results in one of the genre’s most endearing trios since Superbad.
Emergency gives us two memorable trios for the price of one. It isn’t long until Emma’s older sister Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) notices that she’s gone. With her friend Alice (Madison Thompson) and frat guy Rafael (Diego Abraham), they set out to track her down. While best known for her Disney Channel days, Carpenter demonstrated a knack for meatier roles as an insensitive school friend in The Hate U Give. She gives her best performance here as a young woman who’s privileged in every sense. However, Maddie’s relentless drive to find her sister makes her more sympathetic than initially anticipated. When our two trios inevitably crash into each other, Emergency balances farcical comedy with hard-hitting reality.
Although the racial commentary is apparent from the beginning, the film’s intense final act will still catch you off guard. Actions rarely have consequences in college comedies. In Emergency, a decision towards the end means endangering one life to potentially save another. Carey Williams’ direction and Lam T. Nguyen’s editing make for a pulse-pounding climax. We fear for all those involved, but our hearts sink watching the chaos unfold from one particular character’s perfective. As gut-wrenching as this sequence is, Emergency builds to an unexpectedly heartwarming ending. With one ingenious final shot, though, we see the toll that this ordeal has taken. Some of the characters may change, but the social unrest persists.