"Welcome to Pine Hill": A Slice of Another Sort of Life

in 38th Seattle International Film Festival

by Emma Gray Munthe

A few years ago, Keith Miller and Shannon Harper met on the streets of NY, late at night. Miller had a dog with him, a dog he had found on the curb a couple of months earlier and kept as his own. It turned out that the dog was Harper’s. The two ended up having a long discussion, which in turn resulted in them making a film together. Welcome to Pine Hill is Keith Miller’s first feature, and Shannon Harper makes his debut as an actor in it. He plays the main character, who is basically a version of himself. The result of this highly unlikely collaboration will, quietly and without any fuss, knock you right out of your socks.

The film version of Shannon is an ex-dealer who has left his old life behind him, and now works as a claims adjuster by day and a bouncer by night. Soon he receives bad news about his health and, in a fly-on-the-wall manner, we get to follow him around for the next few days: paying debts, talking to his mother, meeting up with his old friends. Nothing much happens, yet a whole lot is going on. Without directly addressing class or race, the film ends up saying a great deal about these particular issues, and our different approaches to life. Some of us would, for instance, put up signs and knock on doors to find a lost dog. Some of us would know that this door-knocking could end in people calling the police. Some of us are insured, others aren’t. Some of us go trekking as a hobby, while others never set foot in a forest.

The fact that Welcome to Pine Hill is Miller’s first feature is surprising. There is already so much here! The film combines the maturity of a veteran filmmaker who has found his voice a long time ago with the raw energy and intensity of a beginner with a story that he or she desperately needs to tell. Miller has gotten fantastic performances out of his mostly nonprofessional cast. Harper is a quiet explosion on screen and Mary Meyers is magnificent as his mother. They, and the way Miller has worked with partially improvised dialogue and long takes, give an authentic, real and Cassavetes-like energy to the film. With the beautiful grainy cinematography, slow pace and meditative rhythm, it all adds up to a great piece of poetic realism. At times it reminds us of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979), but with better acting overall. There is a scene, a long take in which Shannon is preparing and eating a frozen dinner when he receives a surprise. You expect him to lose his calm, to see him crumble under the pressure of the bad news. But he never does. He goes about his everyday life, much like the family in Burnett’s classic. Until, of course, he doesn’t.

Miller stays clear of stereotypes and what we have come to expect from depictions of Afro-American men on screen. He serves a slice of another sort of life, a sort that rarely makes it onto the screen. Once in a blue moon a work like Welcome to Pine Hill, or like Prince of Broadway (2008), comes along and shows us how seldom this happens.