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“We’re the safety net for society,” says a doctor in Peter Nicks’ compelling documentary “The Waiting Room,” nicely summing up the movie’s urgency. It’s a portrait of 24 hours in the emergency room of Oakland’s public Highland Hospital, in which we meet some of the many people who passed through that day: a man with painful bone spurs in his back; a frightened little girl with a bad case of strep; a young man with a testicular tumor; an elderly woman with diabetes; a 15-year-old victim of gun violence. Many of these people don’t have insurance, or lost their insurance when they lost their jobs; they come to Highland because they have nowhere else to go.

This sounds like depressing viewing, and indeed “The Waiting Room” will cause renewed despair over the state of our national health — we’re seeing just a tiny sampling here of the multitudes of people who have fallen through the cracks. (The soft-voiced young man with the tumor, which may be cancerous, says that he was scheduled for surgery that very day at a private hospital — but was sent away when they found he didn’t have insurance.) “The ER is not the place to manage someone’s overall health,” says a frazzled provider; another tries to calm an angry dialysis patient who’s been shuffled through the system.

But “The Waiting Room” is also a moving portrait of people doing their jobs under very difficult circumstances — and, in virtually every moment we see, doing them with efficiency, wisdom and compassion. Doctors find ways to get their patients what they need; nurses manage the ever-shifting population of the ER with lightning-fast decision-making; a certified nurse assistant in pink glasses presides over the waiting room, checking in a nonstop parade of patients with wit and kindness. We watch as she soothes the worried father of a sick child, calmly chastises a man who’s grown angry at the long wait, and treats every visitor as an individual worthy of care and concern. “You need a little help,” she nods to a weary-looking patient, in a tone that would make anyone feel a little better. “Can’t do it alone.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or