James Hayman (Namir Smallwood) never fears for his own life in “Rounding,” but that hardly means he doesn’t have the fear of God put into him every now and again. As a second-year resident, he still is very much a work-in-progress when he starts a rotation at a hospital in the small town of Greenville, but also seasoned enough to begin taking responsibility for individual patients and it may be the most terrifying scene in director Alex Thompson’s second feature, which doesn’t lack for toe-curling sequences, when he is required to inform someone for the first time that their condition is terminal. As terrible as the news James has to deliver is, the actual delivery couldn’t go any worse after being told by his supervisor Dr. Harrison (Michael Potts) to be “direct and humane,” not knowing how to comfort a stage four cancer patient when the straight answer to “am I going to die?” turns the conversation sideways.
That this rather common rite of passage is mined for all its horrific possibilities is indicative of the inspired psychological thriller where there’s no more dangerous place to be than inside James’ head. The aspiring doctor would seem to know this himself, requesting a transfer to Greenville at the start of “Rounding,” having recently had a patient suffer a heart attack on his watch and believing a move out of the city could be good for him. In the suburbs, there may be less pressure on him as far as the number of patients he has to see and the weight of maintaining a certain career track, but as Dr. Harrison informs, “So much of rural medicine is about the patient,” putting the heat on him in other ways and leading to lessons in vocal technique and better bedside manner he’d rather not attend.
These wouldn’t seem to be extraordinary demands to make of someone who has already done the work to be in the position James is in to make life or death decisions, but Thompson and co-writer Christopher Thompson meticulously illustrate all that’s being asked of medical staff, particularly after they’ve seen things they can’t unsee. Still shaken by the death on his hands, James isn’t entirely sure himself whether he should say anything about a new patient (Sidney Flanigan) he believes has been misdiagnosed, set to have a lung transplant he doesn’t think she needs. It doesn’t help that he could’ve sworn he saw her before at a grocery store tucking a few items into her shirt or that her mother (Rebecca Spence) is conspicuously attentive, but worse than feeling as if he has to stay silent about it, James’ real inability to communicate plunges him into deeper and deeper despair, though the implications it has on those he’s supposed to be treating are just as serious.
As in Thompson’s debut “Saint Frances,” there’s an uncommon sensitivity to the stress inherent in even the most mundane situations after a routine has been disrupted and while the director and writer Kelly O’Sullivan (who turns up as a fellow orderly of James) previously found comedy as a release, “Rounding” refuses to let that tension go, imagining the entire world as a haunted house James navigates on a bum leg (his left ankle becomes the most gruesome cause for concern on screen since John Turturro soldiered on in “The Night Of”) where his morning jog is an endless series of stairs and he increasingly has trouble discerning dreams from reality when he can’t get any shut-eye. Smallwood leads a strong ensemble that fittingly has one foot in reality and another in the full-fledged horror film “Rounding” threatens to be, becoming even more unsettling when it fully doesn’t adhere to the conventions of either. When regret can be uncontrollable, it’s only fitting that “Rounding” is a wily beast worth chasing down.
“Rounding” will be available to stream for the duration of Tribeca from June 9th through 19th.