Review: ‘Rounding,’ starring Namir Smallwood, Sidney Flanigan and Michael Potts

June 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Namir Smallwood in “Rounding” (Photo by Nate Hurtsellers)

“Rounding” 

Directed by Alex Thompson

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the dramatic film “Rounding” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A fairly new doctor, who has a history of mental illness, starts working at a rural hospital, where he becomes fixated on a 19-year-old woman with serious respiratory problems.

Culture Audience: “Rounding” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching unrealisitic and incoherent medical dramas.

Although the medical drama “Rounding” has a very talented cast, this rambling and pointless movie is an insult to the medical profession and to viewers’ intelligence. The movie’s horror elements are time-wasting, repetitive distractions that are used as borderline tacky ways to represent mental illness. And the “medical mystery” in “Rounding” is terribly mishandled in a story about a mentally ill doctor who is convinced that something sinister is going on with one of his patients at the hospital where he works.

It’s all so disappointing, because “Rounding” director Alex Thompson made such a memorable and appealing feature-film debut with 2020’s “Saint Frances,” a comedy/drama about a nanny who experiences an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy while caring for a precocious 6-year-old girl named Frances. Thompson should be commended for taking the risk of having his second feature film as a drastic departure from his first feature film, but “Rounding” is most definitely a “sophomore slump.” “Rounding” is almost a direct opposite movie to “Saint Frances” in every way, including the quality of the filmmaking.

“Saint Frances” was written by Kelly O’Sullivan, who starred as the nanny in the movie. She also has a supporting role in “Rounding” as a hospital doctor. “Rounding” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) was written by Alex Thompson and Christopher Thompson, and it’s a far inferior screenplay to “Saint Frances.” “Rounding” is as dull as “Saint Frances” is lively.

One of the biggest strengths of “Saint Frances” was the authentic-sounding and witty dialogue, as well as characters that were written as people with believable personalities. By contrast, “Rounding” looks and sounds very phony, with empty characters acting out unrealistic scenarios. It’s also very hard to care about any of the characters in “Rounding,” because they (and the rest of this movie) are written as incomplete sketches.

The title of “Rounding” refers to the word used for medical professionals making the rounds to visit patients, usually at a hospital. In the production notes for “Rounding,” Alex Thompson makes a statement that reads, in part: “I grew up in a family of medical professionals. Dinner conversations often included black lung and bronchoscopies, and when asked how his day went, my father can be relied upon to reply, ‘I didn’t kill anyone.’ At the start of the [COVID-19 pandemic] lockdown in Kentucky, he told me about a patient he’d seen frequently as a young resident whose story was strange and who he thought about often.”

It’s astonishing that Alex Thompson says he comes from a family of medical professionals, because “Rounding” is so full of plot holes and ridiculous nonsense, it looks like it was made by a director who didn’t bother consulting with any medical professionals. Adding to the movie’s problems, it seems like Alex Thompson couldn’t decide if he wanted to make a medical mystery drama, a psychological thriller or a horror movie. “Rounding” has elements of all three genres, but it’s mostly a medical drama with some psychological and horror scenes thrown into the mix in redundant ways.

“Rounding” begins with a scene showing the death of an elderly hospital patient named Vivian Spurlock (played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who has an unnamed respiratory condition, because she needs to breathe through a tube in her throat. Vivian is being attended to by Dr. James Hayman (played by Namir Smallwood), who’s a resident at this unnamed hospital in this unnamed U.S. city with a large urban population. Before going into Vivian’s hospital room, where she is the only patient, James stopped by a medication supply room to get a liquid drug that viewers find out later is potassium chloride. He’s seen by a security guard named Bart (played by Alex Wilson), and they exchange pleasant small talk.

James is very calm and measured when he goes into Vivian’s room. They talk for a little bit before he says to her: “I found that poem you remembered. Are you sure this is what you want?” Vivian replies, “I’m sure.” James removes the tube from Vivan’s throat and puts the potassium chloride in Vivian’s intravenous fluid bag. At this point, it’s easy for viewers to see that James is about to kill Vivian with a lethal dose. But is it euthanasia, or is it murder?

As the potassium chloride starts to flow through Vivian’s body, James reads her the poem that she requested. It’s implied that she asked James to help her commit euthanasia, and her request included that he would read this poem as she lay dying on the hospital bed. But something goes terribly wrong.

Vivian changes her mind about dying, and she begs James to help her live. But it’s too late. The overdose has already been administered. Vivian dies. James calls for help, and several hospital workers rush into the room. James is seen running out of the room and collapsing in a hospital hallway.

The next scene takes place two months later. James is in an office meeting with a supervisor named Dr. Justin Groff (played by Ed Kross), who is unhappy with what James has just told him: James has decided to accept a job offer at a rural hospital named Greenville, which is in an unnamed part of the United States. It’s mentioned (but never shown in the movie) that James had a nervous breakdown after Vivian’s death and was in a psychiatric facility for it. Because of this breakdown, James was on a leave of absence from this hospital job that he’s about to quit.

James has been released from the facility, but he’s supposed to be in ongoing therapy for his mental health. Justin thinks that it’s too early for James to start working again, but James disagrees. “You barely started counseling,” Justin tells James. “You don’t strike me as a country mouse,” he adds of James moving to a rural area to work at a hospital with less resources than the hospital that James is leaving. However, James is undeterred. He’s going to work at Greenville Hospital.

This meeting with James and Justin is the scene where “Rounding” immediately starts to go downhill. First of all, a medical examination would reveal that Vivian’s cause of death was a potassium chloride overdose. Therefore, Vivian’s death would be investigated as suspicious and probable homicide. It’s no mystery who was the last person to see Vivian alive. And that same person was seen in the medical supply room, where some potassium chloride has gone missing.

In real life, most hospitals in large urban areas have strict ways of making sure that employees don’t steal medication from the supply room. And even if this hospital didn’t have those policies in place, James was still seen taking medication from the supply room, and then Vivian died shortly after he visited her room, and he was the last person to see her alive. At the very least, James would have to undergo an investigation, which is never mentioned in the movie.

But “Rounding” wants viewers to be too ignorant to think about or know about all of these real-life facts. Not only does James never undergo an investigation over Vivian’s death, it’s mentioned later in the movie that he also got a recommendation letter from his supervisor (presumably Dr. Groff) to take this new job at Greenville Hospital. The entire flimsy premise of “Rounding” is reliant on viewers believing that James experienced no consequences or scrutiny for a patient dying of a potassium chloride overdose while under his watch.

James is a doctor, but apparently he’s not making enough money to afford more than being able to rent a room in a non-descript house when he moves to this unnamed rural area. (He might be heavily in debt from student loans.) His middle-aged landlord Mrs. Watts (played by Meighan Gerachis) is disheveled and world-weary. She tells James that the room he’s renting used to be her son’s room, which is why it still has a lot of his belongings from his childhood. Mrs. Watts also mentions that her son didn’t approve of renting out the room, but now her son has been “dead for a few years. He was struggling with depression.”

And what a coincidence: Another young doctor at Greenville Hospital is also renting a room in Mrs. Watts’ home. His name is Carol Hontolas (played by Max Lipchitz), and his only purpose in the movie is to be a co-worker who has the ability to see how James acts when James is at home. Carol is a friendly and upbeat person who seems to want the best for an obviously troubled James.

If people start watching “Rounding” by thinking it will be a horror movie, they might mistakenly believe that this house will be a source of mystery and intrigue. It’s not. In fact, there was really no point in even having the scene where Mrs. Watts had to mention that James is now living in a room where her dead son once lived. It’s one of many examples of pointless scenes in the movie.

James’ supervisor at Greenville Hospital is Dr. Emil Harrison (played by Michael Potts), whose actions and words become increasingly odd and unprofessional as the story continues. But when Emil first meets James, he’s warm, welcoming and seems to care a great deal about providing empathetic medical treatment. He even gives James a tour of Greenville, which he describes as a hospital that prides itself on having a personal touch with its patients.

Emil is vaguely aware that James had some problems at the hospital where James previously worked, but Emil assumes it was burnout from working in a large urban hospital. He also knows that Emil has some mental health issues, but Emil doesn’t really know all the details. The movie shows whether or not Emil finds out the truth about James’ background.

Emil explains to James why Greenville is open to giving inexperienced doctors who are second-year residents (such as James) a chance to work there: “We’re such a flexible program.” Emil also tells James that Greenville will give James a “fresh start” and a “rural patient experience.” Emil adds, “There’s a real ability to make an impact here.”

At Greenville, James works closely with Carol and two other young doctors, who all go on rounds with him: Dr. Kayla Matthews (played by O’Sullivan) and Dr. Mac MacLauren (played by Bradley Grant Smith), who are ultimately fairly useless characters. Kayla is completely generic and forgettable and a waste of O’Sullivan’s actor talent. At first, Mac seems to be an antagonist to James, because he acts superior to James and seems to be waiting for James to do something wrong. However, whatever storyline that could’ve been developed for this Mac/James rivalry goes nowhere. James ultimately proves to be his own worst enemy.

There’s a scene that reveals that Mac and James attended the same middle school and hadn’t seen each other in years until James came back to his rural area to work for Greenville Hospital. It’s the movie’s first mention that James spent at least part of his childhood in this rural area, but then “Rounding” completely ignores this important information. When Mac sees James for the first time in years outside of a bar where some of the hospital doctors are hanging out, Mac says to James: “I hear you’ve been having a rough time.” James defensively brushes off this comment by abruptly saying, “I’m fine.”

However, whatever problems James was having before he moved to this rural area are not going away just because he’s changed where he lives. James predictably continues to suffer from the mental illness that he probably had before Vivian’s death. Expect to see James have numerous hallucinations involving some shadowy monsters in murky locations. These “horror” scenes aren’t very scary and are fairly short. Sometimes, James has these hallucinations on the job, so he’s shown freaking out in a hospital hallway or cowering in fear in a back room.

James also has blackouts on the job. Some of these blackouts last for hours. He wakes up to find a co-worker saying that people were looking for him, and he was expected to be somewhere hours ago. What kind of hospital employee or medical worker could get away with this incompetence? Only in a dumb movie like “Rounding.”

Even when he’s clearly unfit to do his job, James is never really held accountable. He’s just told to stay away from a certain patient after this patient becomes his obsession. That patient is 19-year-old Helen Adso (played by Sidney Flanigan), who is bedridden in the hospital after having a series of respiratory problems.

When James sees Helen in the hospital for the first time, he’s startled, because a number of days earlier, he saw Helen shoplifting candy in a grocery store. During this shoplifting incident (another pointless scene), Helen and James made eye contact with each other. She knew he saw her shoplifting, but Helen and James didn’t say anything to each other.

Helen has asthma, but she’s been in this hospital for symptoms that are definitely not asthmatic. Doctors can’t seem to diagnose Helen’s mystery respiratory illness. James notices from Helen’s medical records that Helen has been admitted to the hospital six times so far that year. James raises these concerns to Emil, who explains that Helen gets treated at the hospital when Helen’s lung specialist goes on vacation. James also questions the hospital’s medical test results for Helen.

Emil gets defensive and tries to make James feel like James is being paranoid and insubordinate whenever James is skeptical about how the hospital is treating Helen. Emil lets James run his own tests on one occasion, but Emil mostly acts like James is being a nuisance for constantly questioning the hospital’s treatment of Helen. Mac, Kayla and Carol also tell James not to question the hospital’s procedures.

Emil often leads Mac, Kayla, Carol and James on group “roundings” at the hospital. One day, during a rounding, Emil gives James the task of telling a patient named Mr. Jones (played by Edwin Lee Gibson) that Mr. Jones has Stage 4 lung cancer and has only three to six months to live. It doesn’t go well, because James is too aloof and clinical in telling this news, and Mr. Jones gets angry at how James is talking to him. Emil, Mac, Kayla and Carol see this outburst.

Later, Emil tells James in a private meeting that James needs to go to a seminar to improve James’ bedside manner. When James asks Emil if he’s doing anything wrong, Emil insists that all the hospital’s new doctors have to take this seminar. These seminar scenes just waste more screen time and ultimately just show that James hates being in an environment that resembles therapy and where people have to talk about feelings.

Helen has a very overprotective mother named Karen (played by Rebecca Spence), who is always with Helen in the hospital. Karen notices that James has taken an interest in Helen that goes beyond a normal doctor/patient relationship. It predictably leads to James and Karen clashing with each other.

While James is battling his personal demons, he suddenly wants to be an investigator into Helen’s mystery respiratory illness. He gets very upset when he finds out that Helen will be getting a lung transplant. He thinks this operation is unnecessary, while Karen and Emil vehemently disagree. James insists that they have to listen to what Helen’s body says. Yes, it’s that type of movie with this type of hokey dialogue.

“Rounding” makes very superficial and awkward attempts to make it look like James is building a friendly rapport with Helen. But it all looks so staged and unconvincing. And he comes off looking like a creepy older man who becomes obsessed with befriending a vulnerable teenage patient when she gets out of the hospital. James says and does things that are very inappropriate and would get most hospital doctors suspended or fired, although “Rounding” obviously wants James to look like a protagonist who should get sympathy from viewers.

James becomes so obsessed with Helen, he does some stalking and theft, which won’t be further detailed in this review. He also begins to think that Helen’s mystery illness is being caused by her mother Karen, who has set up an online fundraising collection for Helen (similar to a GoFundMe account), which has raised a six-figure sum so far. Munchausen syndrome (causing an illness to get sympathy and attention) is mentioned several times in the movie. But is Helen’s illness actually Munchausen syndrome caused by Helen, Munchausen syndrome by proxy caused by Karen, or is it something else?

The character of Helen could have been fascinating, but she has mostly a blank personality in this movie. “Rounding” is just a showcase for James’ neuroses and hallucinations, which become uninteresting in their repetitiveness. Helen’s lack of character development in “Rounding” is a big letdown and an underuse of Flanigan’s talent. Flanigan made an impressive feature-film debut starring in the 2020’s critically acclaimed drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” in which she played a 17-year-old who travels from Pennsylvania to New York to get an abortion.

“Rounding” gets worse, as James’ mental health and his unprofessionalism are never adequately addressed. Emil gets more and more aggravating as a supervisor who dismisses obvious problems, as if these problems will solve on their own. There’s a scene toward the end of the film where James tells Emil that he’s having nightmares. Emil just responds cheerfully and says, “You’re sleeping.”

This disconnected reaction is supposed to show Emil’s tendency to be out-of-touch and in denial, but it’s just an example of how the Emil character is poorly written. Potts gives an adequate performance in an awful role that will have a lot of viewers more irritated with Emil than any other character by the end of the movie. As bad as James is on the job, Emil is in many ways worse for letting so many medically and legally problematic things happen at the hospital, with Emil’s full knowledge.

Forget about getting any backstories for any of the characters in “Rounding.” There are no meaningful details about the backgrounds of any of these characters, except it’s repeated that James is emotionally attached to his mother, whom he says inspired him to become a doctor. There are a few scenes where James talks to his loving and supportive mother on the phone.

“Rounding” goes off on a mishandled tangent where James acts like a private investigator. But considering his mental instability, viewers will question if what James finds out is real or possibly a figment of his imagination. James gets an abscessed wound on his left foot, so the movie shows him limping around a lot, with no explanation for why he doesn’t get this wound treated. Not surprisingly, the wound gets worse.

Smallwood’s performance as James isn’t bad, but it’s not outstanding, and probably would’ve been better if this movie’s screenplay and direction were up to basic standards of engaging storytelling. “Rounding” has a surprise “reveal” at the end, which completely falls flat, and brings up some major questions that the movie never answers. By the end of “Rounding,” it becomes obvious that the filmmakers have made an atrocious mockery of the medical profession and mental illness, just to make a movie that’s trying to be artsy but is in fact an erratic mess.

Review: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always,’ starring Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder

March 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Directed by Eliza Hittman

Culture Representation: Taking place in rural Pennsylvania and New York City, the dramatic film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” about a 17-year-old who gets an abortion, has a predominantly white cast with some representation of African Americans.

Culture Clash: The teenager seeking the abortion doesn’t want to tell her parents, so she travels from her native Pennsylvania to New York, where adult permission isn’t required to get an abortion.

Culture Audience: “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will appeal mostly to people who like well-written, well-acted independent films and are concerned about reproductive rights.

Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

When viewers first see 17-year-old Autumn Gallagher (played by Sidney Flanigan) in the dramatic film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” she’s performing at a talent show at her high school in rural Pennsylvania. She’s on stage by herself, singing and playing an original song on acoustic guitar, with lyrics that include “He’s got the power of love me” and “He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” During her somewhat nervous performance, a guy around her same age shouts from the audience, “Slut!” She pauses briefly, with shock and embarrassment flashing across her face, and then continues the performance.

After the show, Autumn is eating at a local diner with her family—her mother (played by Sharon Van Etten), her stepfather (played by Ryan Eggold) and Autumn’s cousin/best friend/schoolmate Skylar (played by Talia Ryder). The conversation is tense, since Autumn and her stepfather do not get along, and her mother has to urge him to tell Autumn that she did a good job at the talent show.

Meanwhile, the same guy who rudely heckled her at the talent show is eating at a nearby table with some friends. He makes a sexually obscene gesture to Autumn. And she walks over to the table and throws a glass of water on him without saying a word before she leaves.

The quiet way that Autumn handles this problem is consistent with her personality, which is introverted and sometimes sullen. And when she finds out that she’s pregnant (the pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted), it’s no surprise that she wants to keep the pregnancy secret from her parents and she wants to get an abortion. Although it’s not explicitly stated in the film, it’s implied that the guy who heckled her is the father of her child. Whatever relationship she had with the guy, it has clearly ended.

Autumn finds out she’s pregnant by going to a “pregnancy crisis center,” and notices something odd: The woman who gives her the pregnancy test is using a test that can be bought at a drugstore. The female worker also discourages Autumn from getting an abortion and tells her about her options for having the baby. Autumn won’t find out until later that this place is not a real medical clinic, but a facility affiliated with a pro-life group.

When she goes to a real clinic, Autumn thinks she’s 10 weeks pregnant, based on what she was told at the “pregnancy crisis center.” But she’s gets a harsh shock when she finds out that she’s actually 18 weeks pregnant.  It takes a while for it to sink in to Autumn that the “pregnancy crisis center” mostly likely intentionally deceived her about her pregnancy term, so that if she decided to terminate the pregnancy, there would be a possibility that she would wait until it was too late to get a legal abortion.

After finding out about the pregnancy, Autumn becomes distracted and more emotionally withdrawn. Skylar notices right away that something is wrong, and so Autumn confides in her about being pregnant. Autumn has done her research on the Internet and found out that because she is under 18, she can’t get a legal abortion in Pennsylvania without signed permission from her parents. New York is the closest state to her where minors can get an abortion without needing adult permission, but Autumn doesn’t have the money to the take the trip and to get the abortion.

Autumn and Skylar work together as cashiers in a supermarket, where they are being sexually harassed by an unseen male supervisor. Every time they hand in their cash register’s money through a window at the end of their shift, the supervisor creepily kisses their hands, and the girls cringe in disgust. It’s perhaps why Skylar impulsively and somewhat gleefully steals some of the cash-register money one day to help pay for their bus trip to New York.

But when Autumn and Skylar get to New York City, what they thought would be a one-day trip has to be extended to two days, because New York state law requires a two-day process for abortions. Autumn and Skylar have to find an place to stay overnight that they can afford. Meanwhile, Autumn has insurance through her parents, but she doesn’t want the abortion to appear on their insurance records. So she has to pay for the abortion herself, which doesn’t leave enough money for the bus trip back home.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (written and directed by Eliza Hittman) takes viewers on a harrowing and poignant journey that avoids a lot of clichés about unplanned teen pregnancies. No one gets hysterical in the movie, and there’s no sympathetic adult who swoops in to help Autumn with her problem. Autumn’s quiet desperation is shown in heartbreaking moments, such as when she repeatedly punches her abdomen to try to induce a miscarriage. (Her bruises are seen when she gets an ultrasound at a real clinic.)

And in the movie’s most powerful scene (which inspired the film’s title), at the clinic in New York, Autumn is asked a series of questions about her personal life. The multiple choice answers are “never, rarely, sometimes, always.” Autumn’s emotionally painful reactions reveal some of the trauma that she’s experienced her her life.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” won a Special Grand Jury Award for Neorealism at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and the Silver Bear (second-place award) at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. The movie’s greatest strength is in not trying to be a story about extraordinary accomplishments (which is often the focus of many dramatic films) but by taking an unflinching look at the everyday turmoil and obstacles that someone like Autumn can face in trying to get a legal abortion for an unwanted pregnancy.

Flanigan and Ryder give utterly realistic performances that also show the importance of their friendship and family bond, which can be considered a bright spot in Autumn’s very bleak situation. And the directorial approach of Hittman is to tell the story in such an intimate way, that viewers will feel like almost like they’re watching from the viewpoint of a hidden camera.

Regardless of how someone might feel about abortion or which laws are in place, the reality of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies isn’t going to go away. The question that the movie puts forth is whether or not people under the age 18 have less rights in choosing when to become parents, and if they should have to go through more indignities and more restrictions to get safe and legal abortions. Autumn’s story is a cautionary tale on what can happen to someone in this situation. The toll that it takes isn’t limited to the person seeking an abortion but can have ripple effects on society at large.

Focus Features will release “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the VOD release of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” to April 3, 2020.

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