Not many filmmakers can boast a 99% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes for their small-scale debut, as Alex Thompson earned with 2019’s “Saint Frances.” Fewer still follow up with an even stronger second act.
Thompson co-wrote “Rounding” with his physician brother Christopher, and their psychological freakout is possessed of an almost visionary intensity. He’s described this film as inspired by the B-movie thrillers he watched on TV as a kid, but that significantly undersells its lingering power.
Indeed, the B-movie moments — ominous threats, manifested demons — are the weaker spots in an otherwise taut and terrifying emotional nightmare.
Namir Smallwood (“American Rust”) is exceptional as James, an ambitious medical resident who falls off the fast track when one of his patients dies. Though his sympathetic mentor (Ed Kross, Amazon’s “Patriot”) urges him to push on, a shell-shocked James insists on leaving his prestigious metropolitan hospital for a rural, underfunded location called Greenville.
The head of Greenville, Dr. Harrison (Michael Potts, “The First Lady”), welcomes him by noting that there’s “a real ability to make an impact out here.” That’s exactly what James wants to do, so it’s quite a surprise when he finds himself coming up against one obstacle after another. He’s particularly concerned about his patient Helen (Sidney Flanigan, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), a teen repeatedly readmitted for asthma. Helen’s labs, which seem relatively normal, certainly don’t add up to the increasingly dramatic treatments she’s assigned.
And when James learns she’s being prepped for a lung transplant, he goes into full panic. Is Helen’s mother (Rebecca Spence, “Candyman” 2021) victimizing her daughter, in a case of Munchausen by proxy? Is Helen’s primary doctor, who is mysteriously unavailable for consult, mistreating her? And why is Dr. Harrison so unwilling to reconsider the prevailing plan?
As Helen’s transplant date nears, James finds his own health failing. He is too obsessed with work to care for a twisted ankle, which has deteriorated so badly that it’s become a challenge to walk through daily rounds. He can’t sleep, making it harder to assess his own instincts each time they’re undermined or dismissed. And though he reassures his worried mother that he’s just fine, he’s being tormented by hallucinations in which he sees disturbing imagery.
The Thompsons’ father, also a doctor, served as a consultant on the film, and as a result, James is surrounded, in an often disconcerting way, by a meticulously detailed world. Flanigan, who earned raves for her 2020 acting debut, doesn’t have enough to do as the ailing Helen. But the constant undercurrent of vaguely unsettling hospital sounds in and outside her room is as impactful as the thoughtfully reactive score from Quinn Tsan and Macie Stewart. And there’s an entire community built into the slightly strained banter between the perpetually exhausted medical staff; many members of the cast and crew are “Saint Frances” alums, including costars Kelly O’Sullivan, Charin Alvarez, Hanna Dworkin, and Max Lipchitz.
Cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers (himself a “Saint Frances” vet) shoots James in aptly bleak light or suffocating darkness, his life a waking fright he’s forever trying to escape. The movie even begins with a reference to the dream state of enkoimesis, in which ancient Greek physicians were visited by a God who inspired exorcism-like treatments. But this moody introduction, like the intermittent flashes of religious or paranormal iconography, is a red herring. James’ visions and memories are scary not for their intimations of insanity but for their basis in reality.
Though he is clearly undergoing a very personal breakdown, James’ everyman relatability is what makes him such an effective hero. His sincere desire to help his patients is continually blocked by bureaucratic dispassion; his power as a doctor is no match for the helplessness of an individual desperately trying to move a brick wall.
Smallwood and the Thompsons push this feeling of vulnerability still further, with James also standing in for defenseless patients. An inevitable aspect of illness is the realization that one’s fate is, to some degree, out of one’s own hands. Everyone in a hospital bed is reliant on the compassion, skill, and even guesswork of others. For some, this is a comfort. For others, it is a truly terrifying place to be, both physically and mentally.
James embodies the all-too valid horror of life spinning relentlessly out of a single person’s control. “Rounding” doesn’t always work as a traditional thriller, but that’s only because its ambitions are more expansive than its structure. Thanks to Smallwood’s beautifully modulated performance, and the Thompson brothers’ equally perceptive vision, it’s a deeply unsettling experience nonetheless.
“Rounding” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.