There are no pie charts, no Michael Moore antics, no "2016: Obama's America" posturing.

Instead, the involving and topical documentary "The Waiting Room" focuses on the bitter-pill truths in the fractious health care debate. It accomplishes that mission without the bombast and bluster too often aired by both sides of the political spectrum.

By taking us inside the doors of the perpetually crowded emergency room at Oakland's Highland Hospital, Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks puts a human face on a divisive issue. He strips the topic of the bias, the rancor and, yes, the figures and chooses to show, not tell, the everyday stories of an overworked staff and a stream of patients, many of them uninsured.

Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks (Courtesy of International Film Circuit)
Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks (Courtesy of International Film Circuit)

It's a highly insightful experience, one that's simple and powerful and avoids in-your-face blood. But this is hardly a bloodless documentary. "The Waiting Room" reveals a lot: We witness doctors and nurses attempting to keep a 15-year-old gunshot victim alive, see staff members scurrying around to accommodate frustrated, scared and even belligerent patients with an array of ailments and prescriptions, and we watch as Cynthia Y. Johnson, a calm, composed and unjaded nurse's assistant, tends caringly to her growing flock of new arrivals.

That Nicks avoids framing any of it around stats might feel like there's not enough meat on its bones, but "The Waiting Room" isn't intended to be an "Inside Job" on health care. It helps that the film is polished, tightly edited and strikingly photographed.


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Nicks and his crew spent five months filming at Highland and had remarkable access in a place that is -- as one of its dedicated physicians, Dr. Douglas White, so succinctly describes -- "an institution of last resort for so many people."

Nicks drops into many of these peoples' lives and medical challenges, his camera capturing a look on these worried faces that says so much more than a political talking head could. Of those, three stories particularly stand out.

Eric Morgan: The thirtysomething patient with a testicular tumor comes in with a desperate desire for an operation. Uninsured but employed, Morgan brings with him paperwork, X-rays from Kaiser and a loving girlfriend, waiting anxiously by his side.

Demia Bruce: The rattled and concerned father takes his young daughter, Deja, to Highland after an undiagnosed infection sends her temperature soaring and makes her face swell. As he grows ever more desperate and fearful for his little girl, Johnson swoops in to soothe. "She's gonna be OK, Big Poppa," she says. He relaxes, just a little.

Carl Connelly: Doctors know him well. He cycles in and out of the ER, but his latest bender has led the pastor at the home where he's been staying to reconsider whether to let him return.

In each case, it's clear this system is broken. But how to fix it?

"The Waiting Room" doesn't have those answers, but it does tap into the heart and soul of what's so critically at stake.

'The Waiting Room'

* * * ½

Rating: NR
Director: Peter Nicks
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes