The mandate at Oakland's Highland Hospital, as one doctor says during Pete Nicks's attentive vérité portrait of the place, is to admit people "just as much for their social conditions as for their medical ones." And as the same guy wearily acknowledges, "The ER's not the place to manage someone's overall health." But Nicks hasn't set out to decry a faulty and dehumanizing health-care system. He'd rather just see how a safety-net hospital cares for its unfortunate abundance of mostly uninsured patients. He has the presence of mind to reveal how humanizing the place actually is. Punctuated only with discreet flourishes of music and time-lapse, Nicks's style feels more retro than novel: the fly on the wall during a day in the life. And indeed, what makes The Waiting Room worth visiting is how well it does without the usual narcotizing doc tactics. There's not a single animated interlude or hectoring infographic. Scene after scene goes by without any polemical point-scoring. The closest Nicks comes to narration is overlaying scenes of patients' stoic triage endurance with their self-told tales of recent layoffs, lost wages and lack of coverage. Rather than press suffering people into service as political pawns, he judiciously allows them a non-reductive sort of anonymity. It's the crucial difference between testimony and experience. Formally, at least, it's also one reliable antidote to all manner of urgent unwellness.
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