SXSW 2022: Coming-Of-Age Tales In ‘Emergency’ And ‘Pirates’ 

Both Reggie Yates's and Carey William's feature directorial debuts follow three young men driving around town over the course of one night, to vastly different results
SXSW 2022: Coming-Of-Age Tales In ‘Emergency’ And ‘Pirates’ 

An inspired update to buddy comedies like Superbad (2007) and Booksmart (2019), Emergency reframes the 'one last wild night out before graduation' plot from the perspective of Black youth, transforming the genre's theme of personal self-discovery into an exploration of collective racial reckoning. What usually progresses as an evening of unfettered debauchery in other teen movies is converted into a night of lessons in self-imposed restraint as two Black students find themselves having to second guess their every action in a landscape of racist aggressions and police brutality. "Someday this will all just be a crazy story," says a character at one point, a stock teen comedy line that assumes the significance of horror movie foreshadowing. Despite its bleak premise, however, writer KD Davila's script crackles with charm and dark humour, the friendship between its leads lending the film a buoyancy that offsets its heavy ideas. 

It takes a while to get this tonality right. When Emergency begins, best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) are weeks away from graduating Buchanan University, an insulated environment that seems to reinforce their racial identity at every turn. A class on hate speech includes a White professor projecting the N-word onto the screen in large font, saying it out loud multiple times and then singling out the two for their opinion. It's a sequence that could have made for a clever sketch of woke intent gone horribly wrong, if not for its awkward staging. A more effective flashback depicts a college that overcompensates for past racial injustices by celebrating even the most minor of Black achievements, prompting Kunle and Sean to aim to become the first two Black students to complete the 'Legendary Tour' — seven parties in one night. While both are initially written as broad archetypes, with Kunle as the uptight, academically inclined nerd and Sean as the laidback life of the party, the rest of the film unravels with a more assured hand as their differing attitudes extend toward their place in a predominantly White society. Kunle assumes that his status as a portrait of Black excellence will let him blend in, while the streetsmart Sean is more cynical. 

Their beliefs are put to test when they arrive home to find an unidentified White girl (Maddie Nichols) passed out on the floor of their living room. She's not only heavily intoxicated, but underage, which immediately puts them in an incriminating position. Understandably nervous about involving the police, they decide to drive her to the nearest hospital, along with their Latino roommate Carlos (a standout Sebastian Chacon), which is when the heightened satire of the earlier portions gives way to a more realistic dread. Nosy White neighbours eye them with suspicion, much like the 'Central Park Karen' Amy Cooper, who called the police on a Black birdwatcher in New York last year. A busted tail light becomes a potential beacon for unwanted police attention. In a nice touch, they pass a house with a BLM sign in the window, a symbol that rings hopelessly hollow. 

Director Carey Williams expertly navigates the enclosed space of the car, which becomes even more claustrophobic as the tension increases. Kunle, meticulously cultivating bacterial cultures in a laboratory for his thesis, experiences life under a microscope himself, relentlessly scrutinised for perceived slights. A parallel plot, in which the drunk girl's sister (Sabrina Carpenter) sets out in search of her, allows the film to weave in more deft commentary, including a well-placed zinger aimed at those who engage in performative wokeness. Emergency deflates towards the end, resolving its nail-biting plot too neatly, but still emerges as a thrilling ride into uncharted territory, even as its sharp sense of humour keeps the wheels turning.

**

A more conventional but just as charming coming-of-age story emerges from Pirates, broadcaster Reggie Yates' warm ode to 1990s London, seen through the eyes of three 18-year-old best friends. It's New Year's Eve, 1999, and Cappo (Elliot Edusah), Two Tonne (Jordan Peters) and Kidda (Reda Elazouar), having just crossed the threshold of adulthood, find themselves on the cusp of a new millennium. Even so, the Y2K panic and looming adult responsibilities are peripheral concerns, set aside in favour of a good-time romp that unravels over the course of a single night. As the teens attempt to wrangle tickets to a New Year's party, even the consequences of their past shenanigans can't dent their youthful pursuit of instant gratification. 

Pirates evokes the atmosphere of the 90s through characters who check in on their Tamagotchis and use pens to rewind their cassette tapes. In a singular demonstration of how finely attuned the film is to nostalgia, it counts on viewers to register the instantly recognisable sounds of the Nokia snake game without it even being mentioned. Its depiction of the 90s as an era of freedom and limitless possibility extends to its refusal to judge its lead trio, chronicling their lows with the same affection as their highs. Scenes of them shoplifting and committing accidental arson are tinged with the good-natured fondness of someone recalling the waywardness of their youth years later. The film's greatest charms lie in how it follows Cappo, Two Tonne and Kidda as they slide from caper to caper with an irresistible, if obviously misplaced confidence, viewing life as one great adventure. Bickering dissolves into banter and the propulsive 90s soundtrack smooths over any stretches of silence. A recurring intertitle counts down the minutes to midnight without injecting any sense of urgency into the proceedings, creating the impression that Pirates is a film that relishes every moment it has with its lead trio, rather than one that wants to dwell on how little time they have left together. 

The stakes are pleasantly low throughout, with the group stopping for food, getting haircuts and mostly just driving around over the course of their night. Even a subplot about Cappo wanting to quit his friends' band is devoid of dramatic tension. While the hyper-specificity of Pirates makes for a compelling insight into a different place and time, as the teenage angst it tackles is universal. Two Tonne chafes at the restraints of small-town life and clings to youthful dreams even as they're slowly crushed by the drudgery of adulthood. At the end of the night, however, as in most teen comedies, misunderstandings melt away into a bittersweet catharsis and the turn of the millennium marks a personal evolution. Pirates isn't as interested in exploring new territory as its title suggests, but its retread of familiar themes makes for a reliably comforting watch.

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