I don’t know what it is about certain movies, but sometimes I’m going along with a film I don’t particularly like, when I realize that I’m actually invested. Sometimes there’s a specific moment that satisfies me enough that I just accept the film’s flaws and get on with it; sometimes it’s just a thing that happens. It’s the culmination of things that clicks.
Welcome to Pine Hill is one of those movies. Kind of.
Welcome to Pine Hill
Director: Keith Miller
Release Date: March 1, 2013 (New York City)
Welcome to Pine Hill follows Shannon (Shannon Harper), a reformed drug dealer living in Brooklyn who is suffering from a rare and horrible form of cancer. Rather than attempting to get treatment for the illness (presumably due to lack of insurance), he seems to be working on making peace with various people he needs to make peace with. I don’t know if I was supposed to feel sorry for Shannon, who aside from some occasional vomiting doesn’t actually seem to be too heavily affected by the disease, because he doesn’t really ask to be felt sorry for. He never tells anyone else he is sick, even if it’s clearly weighing on his mind from time to time, and he continues as though everything is basically normal.
Shannon’s interactions with people are, for the most part, relatively interesting, if somewhat awkward (for reasons I will get into momentarily). There are a lot of different types of people in New York City, and by placing drug dealers who talk about getting shot while freestyle rapping in the same film as honest-to-god hipsters (I hate honest-to-god hipsters), the film basically hits the extremes. The middle-ground is a bit less fleshed out, but the film is also less than 90 minutes, so I can’t really fault it for that.
Welcome to Pine Hill‘s greatest problem is its constant feel of artifice. In Keith Miller’s Director’s Statement about the film, he talks of blurring the lines between fiction and reality, but it doesn’t work. In fact, that may be the very reason the film feels as awkward as it does. These characters, for the most part, really don’t feel like actors. They feel like people who inadvertently walked onto the set of a movie, were handed a waiver of some kind, and then kept going. Their dialogue is stilted and repetitive. Rather than flowing naturally, it feels as though the actors are working to make it seem like the dialogue is flowing naturally. I don’t know how much was scripted (if any of it), but it certainly seems like improvisation. I have worked with amateur actors improvising lines; sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Here, it really doesn’t. If it turns out that the film follows a clear script and is more of a John Cassavetes-style “Make them think it’s improvised because art or something,” consider me fooled but not impressed.
This artificial feeling extends into the Welcome to Pine Hill‘s environment. Although I can’t claim to have recognized every neighborhood that the film takes place in, I know that New York City is not as devoid of people as the film makes it seem. Until the third act, there are almost never more than two people on screen, even when it really seems like there should be. Shannon works in an office in Midtown Manhattan, an insurance office which seems to have a whole lot of customers attempting to make claims. Somehow, though, he has only one coworker, a female who acts as a framing device for a single shot and is never seen again. There’s no sound of working in the background or people milling about; it’s just Shannon the one-man insurance machine. When he goes outside his office to the essentially empty street and has a full conversation with a friend, waiting in out a single other person walking by, the just feels fake.
It doesn’t feel like there is a world outside of the frame. If you were to look above or below, to the left or the right, you would see the cast and crew, maybe a boom or some lights. But it wouldn’t be the reality that Welcome to Pine Hill tries to create. In the final act, there are a couple of scenes with a number of onscreen characters, including a relatively packed bar, which is the first time there is interaction with people who don’t seem like they are there to just be in the film. Even in these moments, though, things don’t really mesh. When the camera left Shannon to go rack focus onto random objects, I forgot why I was supposed to be paying attention to him in the first place.
This goes back to the indie sensibilities. Long takes, handheld shots, weird rack focuses, all of these things add up to being a film that feels amateurish. I should know: it looks just like short films I’ve made. That whole “there are only two people in the world at this exact moment” thing? That is about as generically independent as you can get. More people means more money means more problems. These limitations can be used to interesting effect, but Welcome to Pine Hill would have worked better without them.
But it isn’t all bad. As I said in the introduction, at some point I was begrudgingly pulled into the film’s world, fake as it was. I never completely stopped thinking about its flaws, nor did I feel that they had been justified by me becoming invested in Shannon’s story, but I was willing to accept them. Shannon is an interesting character, a strong and silent type with a maddeningly slow walk (and he’s from New York!). Even if the people around him didn’t feel right, he usually did. Harper’s acting likely won’t win any awards, but the film is nonetheless carried by his performance, and he is mostly up to the task.
When all is said and done, I don’t know who to recommend Welcome to Pine Hill to. Its seems to be targeted towards a very specific crowd, but I’m not sure what that crowd is. If the things I’ve said don’t sound particularly egregious to you, then you will probably like what you see, and there are certainly things to like. I can guarantee, though, that a lot of people will be turned off by the amateurish nature of the film, and they won’t be able to get over some of its problems the way I did. But one thing is for sure: Welcome to Pine Hill has heart. That isn’t always enough, but you can’t really fault people for trying.