Monday, February 25, 2013

Alone and facing the end: Keith Miller's quiet, bracing WELCOME TO PINE HILL

WELCOME TO PINE HILL begins with a dispute over a dog between Keith Miller, the writer/director of the film, and its star, Shanon Harper. According to the press materials for the film, something like this argument actually happened between the two men, and their chance encounter over the dog led to the creation of this odd but intensely interesting and finally quite moving motion picture whose title might just as easily have been Welcome to Pine Box.

That opening scene also features Mr. Miller (shown at right) in the role he played in real life. The scene, I believe, will place you in the corner of one or the other of the men, depending almost entirely upon your race, with the remain-der due to your "class." One of the most interesting things Miller manages to do -- with enor-mous help from his leading actor -- is to bring viewers quickly over to the side of Abu (played in indelible fashion by Mr. Harper). The film explores the life of this man -- overweight and an ex-criminal trying to go straight -- who has managed to land a decent job with an insurance com-pany, moonlighting as a bar bouncer at the end of his day job.

Harper, above, with his weight and gravitas, seems a natural performer, one who holds our interest by virtue of his unusually subdued charisma, together with the situation in which the filmmaker has placed him. These two things prove a near-perfect match. Miller allows us to note that, just as the drunken white guy at the bar doesn't have a clue to who and what Abu is, Abu himself has no clue to who and what his Ecuadorian cab driver is on the ride back to his home.

We see our guy in various situations, from his two workplaces to meetings with his physician, his mother (above), and a group of "friends" (below, though at least two out of four of these seem at best "fair weather") until he embarks on his journey to Pine Hill, the meaning of which for Abu was never clear to me, though so specifically acted are Mr. Harper's intentions that I bought it all without complaining.

We never learn all that much about Abu. For instance, is he gay or straight? Doesn't matter. He's a man, he's black, he's dying fast. Finally, he's an important human being, and this is what we need most to understand.

Mr. Miller's movie -- with its ambient sounds (particularly at the close), occasional music, fine performances from all, and cinematography that places us as close as we can get to the character and situation without "intruding" -- along with Harper's intuitive acting skills, allows us to experience the man and his dilemma, surprisingly richly and without sentimentality.

Welcome to Pine Hill, from Oscilloscope and running just 81 minutes, opens this Friday, March 1, at the IFC Center in New York, and will eventually, I hope, be available on DVD and via VOD and streaming.

No comments: