Thursday, February 28, 2013

Welcome to Pine Hill: Last Call in Brooklyn

Abu has all the irony he can take.  He works as a claims adjuster, but he is uninsured.  The former drug dealer has just recently straightened out his life, only to learn it will all soon end.  Resolutely, he settles unfinished business as best he can in Keith Miller’s Welcome to Pine Hill (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

In the opening scene, lead actor Shannon Harper and writer-director Miller re-enact the real life incident that brought them together.  Their dispute over and lost-and-found pit bull puppy first became Miller’s short film Prince/William, expanded here into a full length feature.  It is a telling exchange between the gentrifier and the encroached.  However Harper’s Abu has more pressing concerns when his persistent stomach pains are diagnosed as a rare form of cancer.  With no real options available, Abu aims for some closure, or at least the settling of debts.

Pine might sound depressing because it is.  There is just no getting around it.  Yet, it is also completely hypnotic.  Harper holds viewers absolutely riveted with his quiet intensity, suggesting the crushing weight of all the remorse, regret, fear, and pain bearing down on him.  Recognizing the power and immediacy of his work, Miller focuses in on Harper, letting him carry the picture on his shoulders.

In fact, the film’s spell is only broken when Miller forces the action into what are clearly intended to be teaching moments.  We watch Abu moonlighting at a bar, where the white customers are nauseatingly condescending, only to witness the protagonist act similarly with immigrant cab drivers.  Okay, we get it.

Although certainly looking DIY-ish and improvisational, Pine should not be lumped in the rest of the aimless mumblecore field.  It is definitely headed someplace in particular (Upstate New York), while addressing some profoundly heavy themes—sort of like an Amour for Brooklyn hipsters.  Recommended largely on the strength of Harper’s breakout performance for those who follow the indie scene, Welcome to Pine Hill opens tomorrow (3/1) at the IFC Center.