Like many ambitious experiments, “Welcome to Pine Hill,” filmmaker Keith Miller’s mashup of semi-improvised drama and cinema-verite stylistics, is only fitfully successful. Sporadically, it achieves the arresting intensity of a John Cassavetes pic; more often, however, one gets the impression Miller simply turned his handheld cameras on his cast of nonprofessionals and unfamiliar pros, then waited (and hoped) for something interesting to happen. Winner of the jury prize for best feature at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival, this microbudget indie may prove most valuable as an inspiration for other venturesome auteurs.
“Welcome” is an expansion of “Prince/William,” a 2010 short Miller based on his real-life encounter with Shannon Harper, a fellow Brooklynite who claimed ownership of a puppy Miller had found. (A re-edited version of that short now serves as this pic’s prologue.) Harper, a non-pro, again plays a character largely based on himself, a former drug dealer now gainfully employed as insurance adjustor by day, bouncer by night.
The thin plot — little more than a premise, really — pivots on Harper’s response to a cancer diagnosis. Understandably stunned at first, the intimidatingly huge but generally soft-spoken Harper pushes himself to settle accounts with friends, family members and former business associates, all the while keeping news of his death sentence to himself.
Final scenes find Harper impulsively traveling to upstate New York for what’s evidently his first visit to the hiking trails of the Catskill Mountains. Some will interpret the ambiguous ending as an attainment of transcendence. Others more likely will feel the pic simply stopped without really concluding.
Harper, a hulking African-American who seems at once amiably easygoing and potentially badass, has impressive screen presence and a warm but infrequently flashed smile, two attributes that serve him and the pic well as he coaxes the aud into following him while he rambles from one scene to the next.
Miller subtly generates suspense in some key scenes — including a reunion with friends in a backyard gathering, and a conversation with a stranger in a Catskills hotel bar — by suggesting Harper’s affable demeanor might give way to an angry outburst, or worse, at any moment.
There’s a similar sense of danger throughout the prologue, though it’s appreciably more discomforting to see Miller — a Caucasian filmmaker playing a version of himself — visibly nervous while confronting an angry black man. It doesn’t help that the prologue, ironically, is the most stilted and unconvincing scene in the pic.
Production values are appropriately unpolished.