Title: The Waiting Room
Director: Peter Nicks
Hit small screen series like “ER,” “Chicago Hope” and “Grey’s Anatomy” have for years wrung drama out of gunshot wounds, helicopter crashes, siege stand-offs and all manner of exotic diseases — as well as, of course, by cycling through various super-charged romantic couplings that occasionally make its characters seem like slightly more erudite but no less sexed-up members of some lost season of “The Real World.” What happens in a real public hospital emergency room, however? That’s the focus of the stirring, verité-style documentary “The Waiting Room.”
Directed by Peter Nicks, this raw, character-driven movie unfolds at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, the primary care facility for 250,000 citizens, about 250 of which — most of them uninsured — crowd its emergency room every day and night. It’s perhaps shot over the course of a couple days, but constructed to basically track as one single 24-hour period, weaving together stories of a frightened girl stricken with a dangerous case of strep throat, a young man with a testicular tumor desperately in need of surgery, a blue collar laborer beset with chronic pain, a familiar addict caught in a hazy, frightening relapse, and many more.
There are also, of course, less serious ailments and issues (in addition to the obligatory collection of abusive patients), but among the most heartbreaking cases might be the steady stream of those with recurring health issues — victims of diabetes, and a guy who’s suffered a stroke a couple weeks prior, and now keeps falling down — who so obviously need more consistent, affordable care. This digs into the ugly reality of those who dismiss the need for national health care overhaul, and think that emergency rooms, as they now function, are a solid enough stop-gap. As a doctor points out, his job has a social as well as medical component; simple “bed math” must be considered, but when faced with discharging a stable but otherwise incapacitated patient who has literally no place to go, the greyness of morality looms.
The effectiveness of Nicks’ film lies in its forthrightness, and how it avoids speechifying. There are no direct-address, sit-down interviews with the care providers — the film simply captures doctors and nurses’ interactions with patients, and then artfully layers on additional thoughts from the former by way of sparsely used voiceover. It ends, too, not with codas and grand statements or a call to action, but merely the tribute to another day of human service and assistance. The result is at once gripping and terribly sad; time spent in this “Waiting Room” is emotionally obliterative.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.