A nebbishy white man walking a pit bull through a New York neighborhood at night gets stopped by a large black man, played by Shanon Harper, who insists he lost this dog a month ago. Harper demands the walker surrender the dog, or reimburse him the $250 he paid for the animal originally. Is this an honest misunderstanding between neighbors from different cultural backgrounds, or a mugging? Later, Harper is drinking at the bar where he works nights as a bouncer when a chatty hipster sits down and starts quoting 50 Cent, and asking if Harper has ever been shot. When Harper gets pissed, is he overreacting to a guy just trying to make conversation, or is he rightly fed up with the casual presumptions of Caucasians?
Keith Miller’s Welcome To Pine Hill isn’t about race per se, but it is about a man who has a difficult time being understood—both because of how he looks and because of his past. Harper isn’t a criminal, but in that opening scene with the dog-walker, he admits he used to be. In the montage that follows, Welcome To Pine Hill shows Harper at an insurance office, where he spends his days recording accident claims (including one from a chummy white guy who tries to bond with Harper by saying, “I spent quite a bit of time in Kenya”), while still making time for an old friend who wants him to “hold onto a package.” Then the story abruptly shifts to a doctor’s office, where Harper—who doesn’t have insurance—learns that he has stomach cancer, and will need expensive medical treatments if he wants to live out the year. So Harper returns to the world he left behind, to settle some old debts from people who would’ve been just fine with never seeing him again.
Welcome To Pine Hill is a short, docu-realistic film, with very little plot and scenes that play like loose improvisations. Miller is mainly interested in the various spaces Harper inhabits, and how he inhabits them. There’s Harper’s tiny apartment, where he towers over the little fan he uses to beat the heat and the toaster oven that warms up his dinners. There’s his mother’s house in Flatbush, where he’s neither expected nor entirely welcome. There are the crumbling back alleys where Harper’s old friends drink beer and argue over past slights. Miller mostly watches his protagonist make his way awkwardly through all these parts of the city, until Harper makes up his mind to seek solace in the woods, in a mostly wordless, moving final act. And so Welcome To Pine Hill ends as far removed from where it begins as Harper is from all the people who think they know him.