As a documentary about the raging inadequacies of our fatally flawed health-care system, The Waiting Room is blessed and cursed with an unmistakable timeliness, especially after Mitt Romney went on 60 Minutes and posited emergency rooms as a solution for the uninsured seeking medical care. Among its many other distinctions, The Waiting Room stands as a powerful refutation of Romney’s conception of emergency rooms as a reasonable, or even vaguely acceptable, option for the uninsured. It’s about good people making the best of circumstances that run the gamut from agonizingly difficult to impossible. It’s about what happens when the social safety net falls apart and the poor are forced to gamble their financial futures on the hope that a sometimes-terrifying bureaucracy will be able to help them and their families survive.
The Waiting Room explores a broad cross-section of humanity through the patients who file through Oakland’s Highland Hospital in need of treatment. Those who come to Highland’s E.R. as a last option include a bohemian sort facing down his mortality in the form of a testicular tumor, a divorced couple putting aside their differences to care for their sick daughter, and a good-humored laborer whose painful, debilitating injuries threaten his livelihood and his ability to pay his mortgage.
While the patients of The Waiting Room are diverse in race, age, ethnicity, and gender, they all share a sense of desperation and vulnerability rooted in lacking the resources to pay for desperately needed procedures without risking penury. The Waiting Room is quietly rich in comedy, drama, and humanity as it respectfully watches its subjects cope with their difficult circumstances with a combination of gallows humor, faith, and dogged determination. Director Peter Nicks puts faces, names, and heartbreakingly relatable stories to a social problem that can all too often feel abstract and academic. His film isn’t just a timely and compelling look into how our health-care system consistently, methodically fails the poor: It’s a tribute of the resilience and dignity of the human spirit without being sappy or sentimental.