Shannon, or Abu, as he sometimes goes by, is a man caught in time. Haunted by his past of selling drugs, crime and various illegal activities, the 20-something black man is trying to cultivate a future while doing his best to stay on the correct side of what's right. But staying on the righteous path isn't always easy. He comes across a white man in his Brooklyn neighborhood walking his lost dog (which he seemed to only marginally care for) and he gently warns the man to do what he thinks is the right thing: give back the dog or pay him the $200 he paid for it, reminding him that back in the day, he'd just take both and that would be the end of it. Abu's trying to make good.
Having left the hood life behind, Abu now works at an insurance claims company in midtown Manhattan, a typical desk job, but one that involves working with people. Polite and soft spoken, he endures sometimes difficult people who just want to kill the insurance messenger. By night Abu is a bouncer in a bar and often has to deal physically with louts. Feeling ill in recent days and vomiting at work, it isn't stress. Abu's life is thrown for a loop when he's diagnosed with a rare stomach cancer that may only give him a few months to live.
And this is all the plot or story that "Welcome To Pine Hill" gives its viewer. Grappling with his impending death, already on the path of making amends, Abu doesn't change his game plan much. Without medical insurance, instead of seeing doctors for chemo, he continues his solitary existence in a haze of denial. He sees old friends, pays outstanding debts and visits his mother. Without options, Abu is quietly preparing to die.
And while an interesting, quiet and introspective meditation on mortality, the black experience and the prospect of shuffling off this mortal coil, "Welcome To Pine Hill" isn’t always fully engrossing. There are, to put it simply, two types of films. Those that tell you how you should be feeling, underscoring each emotion, and those that are mostly a blank canvas for the viewer to project on, and 'Pine Hill' is definitely in the latter camp. But the Bresson-like technique of minimalism and leaving space to live within the spiritual and emotional essence of characters for the viewer to soak in can be tricky to pull off. While Shanon Harper puts in an admirable internal and restrained turn as Abu, 'Pine' leaves us yearning for something just a little more concrete; after Abu's diagnosis, the film essentially becomes a rudderless collection of wandering scenes. Perhaps this is the point: illustrating Abu's own shell shock as he tries to make sense of his tragic circumstances, ultimately and quickly being resigned to the fact that he is helpless. But it doesn't always make for the most compelling movie experience. And yet, “Welcome To Pine Hill” also possess a quite power, a burrowing effect that sticks into the recesses of your brain. It haunts when you think you’ve forgotten it.
Directed by first-time feature-length filmmaker Keith Miller (who makes a cameo as the new dog owner), and a breakout hit at Slamdance 2012, "Welcome To Pine Hill" is stark, minimal and micro-budgeted. While the latter hurts the film in places (it's not the most beautifully shot handheld DV cam film on earth), one does have to admire Miller's subdued and almost opaque form of direction. Using only diegetic sound, naturalistic cuts and framing out of a documentary, one must admit that this open, raw and spacious form of introspective and non-spoonfeeding filmmaking was done to much greater effect in Lance Hammer's similarly naked indie "Ballast” (which this movie vaguely reminds of).
Caucasian directors attempting to explore the African American experience isn't new or revelatory, nor would we suggest any filmmaker needs a passport to tell the story they must tell, but 'Pine' certainly stumbles a bit and becomes awkward in situations when white jackasses encounter Abu and want to "bro down" with him. While it's an interesting way to depict Abu's growing alienation from everyone around him (and his surroundings), as well as the dichotomies of the several worlds that he lives in, the scenes often come off as unfortunate rather than effective. Where the story works well is with the somewhat enigmatic and taciturn Abu. The character doesn’t talk more than he needs to and keep most of his emotions and fears bottled inside. Also strong are sequences with Abu’s erstwhile drug buddies and companions. While they dip in and out of his life, their interactions feel vividly real and the film thankfully isn’t interested in the “they’ll pull you back in” dramatic tropes of the modern gangster film. While that tension admittedly lays low lit, it’s never exploited for cheap plot points.
Still, while far from perfect, "Welcome To Pine Hill" works more often than it doesn’t and is an intimate and existential character study of a man out of place with his past, himself, and his surroundings, and the push and pull of former and future worlds beckoning him. Abu ultimately retreats from the urban landscape of Brooklyn into the open stretches of New Jersey. Or maybe his ventures into the wild unknown of another state is his form of seeking for answers. “Welcome To Pine Hill” never quite coalesces as deeply as it hopes to, but this spiritual tale of redemption resonates. [B-]