Much more successful in its depiction of milieu than dialectics, Keith Miller’s Welcome to Pine Hill opens with a scene of confused ownership over a young pitbull; the confrontation occurs between two unnamed men—one white (Miller), one black (Shannon Harper)—and emits embedded vibes of class and racial tension. After a brief conversation over the dog, which was lost by the black man and found by the white man two months ago, the black man tries to explain why he didn’t put up signs or file a report: “We’re from different places. I’m from where people get shot on a regular basis and it’s no big deal.” The establishing event functions more as a pre-credits prologue than a direct link to the narrative to come, which follows the black man, introduced after the opening title as Shannon, or “Abu.”
Abu works as a claims adjuster at a midtown Manhattan car-insurance company, spending most of his days listening to folks explain the incidents of their car accidents. His existence seems fairly quotidian, but details about his life—or, rather, former life—are delicately dropped, as he’s visited by a friend who observed Abu’s corporate-lackey job and asks Abu to “hold something” for him. Miller carefully underplaying explicit exposition devices, and yet it becomes clear that Abu is a reformed drug dealer just trying to find peace—even if it’s a lonely road. Following a vague period of atypical vomiting, Abu goes to the doctor’s and is given straightforward, grim results that confirm Abu has sarcoma, a malignant cancer of the stomach tissue. Alone, Abu returns home and allows for quiet acceptance over a reheated meal and a beer. He’ll spend the remainder of the film in bars, or returning to visit a series of individuals, including his cold mother and former dealer friends. Miller’s plotting is light, and his long-take-heavy observational approach allows these moments to breathe with patience and anxiety, as Abu never discloses his diagnosis.
Unfortunately, Miller doesn’t always trust the fluency of his visual language, occasionally forcing a point that’s already being captured. On occasion, the film jarringly shifts from casual observation to forced conflict. Miller has stated in interviews that the idea for Welcome to Pine Hill, which is an extension of his short Prince/William, came from true events and the chance encounter he had with the lead actor over a lost dog, yet the scenes built on white-black interaction cinematically register as the most specious in the film, like each are set up as games of Spot the Classist/Racist Clues. In one scene at Abu’s work, an earnest white man randomly mentions that he “spent quite a bit of time in Kenya.” Abu brushes the comment aside, pretending as if he didn’t really hear it, but the audience can’t ignore the clunky remark, which is absurd in its lack of context and feeble attempt to provoke (a subsequent and overlong scene at a bar, in which an obnoxious white patron inquires about Abu’s presumed history of violence, is even more preposterous).
Without calling direct reference to its main purpose, Welcome to Pine Hill represents Miller’s interest in exploring a socioeconomic setting unfamiliar to him; the potentially problematic, if well-intentioned, conception of the film is mostly diffused by the power of debut actor Harper, who imbues this small, mostly-meditative tale with gravitas. Miller owes a lot of Welcome to Pine Hill’s poignancy to Harper for delivering a lived-in performance that infers loads of experience; similar to its soulful and tight-lipped protagonist, the film achieves its occasional thoughtful reticence because of Harper.