Slamdance 2012 jury prize winner Welcome to Pine Hill is currently in competition for the "Independent Visions" prize at the Sarasota Film Fest. The film has a number of other regional fests lined up including NYC's summer Rooftop Films series. If there's any justice in the world (and Welcome to Pine Hill is quite inconclusive on this matter) cinema enthusiasts will recognize that writer/director Keith Miller is a bold, new visual artist and lead actor Shanon Harper is a unique, mesmerizing presence.
WTPH quietly observes the life of Abu, a former drug runner who has severed ties with his criminal past. By day he works in a Manhattan insurance office, saying "ask" and not "axe," and at night he is a bouncer in a bar. He needs the two jobs to pay off debts he owes back in the hood. He lives alone in a spartan apartment with a large format photo of a deep green woods over his bed.
After days of terrible stomach pains, he learns that he has a rare and incurable form of cancer. A difficult chemo treatment could give him six months, but, alas, the guy who works for an insurance company has no insurance.
Not knowing (or at least not showing) how to react, Abu doubles his efforts to get the money he owes. He makes something of a final tour of his neighborhood, first to his mother, then to his old crew, finally the loan shark. Then he gets on a bus to the Catskills to figure out how to die.
The meat of this film are the many lengthy and seemingly improvised sequences on Abu's last tour. A world-weary mother who may have served her last batch of forgiveness, a lesson in accruing interest in street loans and an older man preaching the hard work ethic of a "crime-free" life of selling loosies. It took me a minute to pin down what they reminded me of, but they felt like the scenes of found audio that Ralph Bakshi then animated in Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, or like the scenes between the concert footage in Wattstax. It's kinda shocking that I have to go back to the 1970s to find similar films of African-Americans in an understated, natural setting like this. While there is much talk of dirty money and doin' time, there are no guns in Welcome to Pine Hill.
Blame it on the fact that I'm in Florida, George Zimmerman has just been put under house arrest or I have an insatiable taste for Skittles, but I have the difficult topic of race on my mind.
Since we are so quick to empathize with Abu, we truly begin to see the world through his eyes. This is most striking for me when he goes up to the Catskills. He is the only person of color there. This is never stated, and he is never treated unfairly or subjected to racism, but the discomfort of being an outsider in a potentially hostile environment is palpable.
The only direct references to race come from a liberal douchnozzle with an insurance claim who blurts an out of context "I've been to Kenya," and a political speech playing on YouTube in the next room while Abu heats up a frozen dinner.
This is actually one of the best scenes in the film, a handheld long take with eerie music building, and the bulky Shanon Harper wiggling the loose cord of the toaster oven. He's just learned his medical fate and the anticipation of his losing his shit as he cooks dinner is nerve-wracking.
It's impossible not to think of Harper as a young Forest Whitaker. In addition to the physical resemblance, Harper also has a similar mellow and cool voice, as well as the comforting smile. It goes a long way to help Miller hook you into a story that offers only minimal exposition. For example, it is unclear if Abu is his given name or a nickname, and the specifics of his past deeds are never discussed.
Instead of heavy plot, Miller doubles down on ambiance, and it is a winning bet. In between the dialogue sequences are dreamlike passages of long takes and moody atmosphere. Many independent films are criticized for being "a bunch of people standing around talking," but long scenes of people talking can be enlightening if shot with an artistic eye and if the characters are fresh. Welcome to Pine Hill is a needed respite from the House Swanberg monopoly of low budget indies, reminding us that that there are other people in this world whose lives are worth slicing.