TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Director Alex Thompson’s Rounding could be described as a sort of offbeat medical drama, but it’s not hard to see its real roots in something much more classical. The setting might be contemporary, but this is a tragic hero tale that reverberates with a timeless, almost elemental sense of pathos.
At the film’s center is a sympathetic character who, like his predecessors in the literary tradition, harbors a deep-seated flaw that gradually comes to ruin him – despite his innate desire to be good and do good. It’s a coming-apart that’s rendered with heartbreaking earnestness and often gut-wrenching intensity by Thompson and, to perhaps an even greater extent, lead actor Namir Smallwood, who capably shoulders the movie’s dramatic and thematic weight.
Smallwood plays James, a bright and promising young doctor who, as the film begins, is in the thick of his residency at a big city hospital. He’s respected by his peers and compassionate toward his patients. James is a guy who, by all accounts, should be at the dawn of a brilliant medical career. However, his all-consuming dedication to the people under his care threatens to push him toward lines – professional and emotional – that are never supposed to be crossed.
“…James is admonished to leave Helen’s case to the specialists…”
James is introduced in an elliptical prologue that skillfully establishes the stark, portentous tone. While tending to a terminally ill patient with whom he’s developed a close personal connection, James suffers a mental breakdown and, in its aftermath, requests a transfer to a smaller, quieter regional hospital. Convinced of his gifts and sorry to see him go but also undoubtedly aware of his strained and fragile mental state, the program director (Ed Kross) approves his request. James ends up in what seems to be exactly the place he’s looking for: a stately but small-scale hospital called Greenville, located in a quiet, picturesque blue-collar small town far from the city. It’s a place where a resident can “make a real impact,” according to James’ new supervisor, Dr. Harrison (Michael Potts), and it looks to offer him a positive new beginning.
For a while, at least, Rounding straightforwardly mines its drama from the day-to-day struggles of a young medical professional. With Harrison as a stern but seemingly benevolent mentor, James faces the challenge not only of evaluating patients but also of developing a bedside manner to put them at ease. In a harrowing moment, he’s assigned the task of informing an incredulous, newly diagnosed cancer patient that he has only months left to live. Despite James’ best intentions, he fumbles the task pretty badly – though it’s hard to imagine how anyone could break that news with any kind of composure. This is one of many moments in Thompson’s thriller that makes one appreciate the incredible fortitude the medical profession requires of its practitioners.
Through all this, James endures but teeters ever closer to the edge. Ultimately, the catalyst for his downward spiral is a college-aged patient named Helen (Sidney Flanigan), who’s been repeatedly hospitalized after a series of acute asthma attacks that seem to be signifiers of a serious, likely life-threatening condition. While James is admonished to leave Helen’s case to the specialists, he can’t help but notice, perceptively, if not quite tactfully, that something appears a little bit off. Helen’s scans are unusually clear and don’t display irrefutable proof that she requires the lung transplant she’s been scheduled for. Her overbearing mother, Karen (Rebecca Spence), has taken what might be an overly aggressive approach to shepherding Helen’s treatment.
"…the sort of medical mystery that House might tackle..."