Review: “Welcome to Pine Hill” (****)

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Shannon Harper stars in “Welcome to Pine Hill”

From the first moment we hear the crickets chirp in the overgrown shrubs of a Brooklyn neighborhood, to the last moment, as the camera fades out on the singing birds in the Catskill wilderness– “Welcome to Pine Hill” exhibits a simplistic, measured humility. Keith Miller’s debut feature is a focused portrayal of a man moving beyond his drug dealing past, caught off guard by an unexpected illness. Possessing an authenticity few films can boast, the project was born out of the real life stories of both Miller and star Shannon Harper, and the encounter between the two that created an unlikely friendship. “Welcome to Pine Hill” burned up the independent festival circuit last year, taking home top honors in Slamdance, Atlanta, Nashville, Sarasota and Seattle.

A stirring contrast is represented, both visually and thematically. The first two scenes establish the two sides of Harper– the street and the professional, the old life and the new life. The film is framed very well, making the most of the grey-lit cubicles and the concrete landscapes. Endless, fluid takes capture long-running scenes, but the film remains trim. Nothing is shown that fails to accentuate the circumstance and difficultly in which our lead finds himself. Harper, in his first acting role, is a stoic, natural talent.

Despite his sympathetic predicament, conflict follows Shannon– a testament to how the effects of our past can linger. Out of the sense of doom that follows him wherever he goes, hope springs from his character and the integrity built from the settling of his debts and scores. Upon reconnecting with his estranged mother, her skepticism is as heartbreaking as it is admirable for holding him to a higher standard. Shannon’s longing for interaction is best displayed in his attempt and failure at connecting with people at the bar in which he works and with the Ecuadorian cab driver who doesn’t understand him. With nowhere to turn, his helplessness and loneliness spur a sense of action and resolution.

“Welcome to Pine Hill” dares to be a different type of portrait. A living, breathing picture of humanity, the film is also a stirring look at the disintegration of one’s last days– much like Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” Miller’s final, lingering fade out in the forest is both relief and tragedy in equal measure.

4 out of 5 stars.

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