Social commentary documentaries and film are inescapable in modern cinema. There’s barely anything left in society that hasn’t been assigned commentary. The food industry, political machines, sushi chefs: an enormous swath of directors have abandoned the amorphous possibilities of fiction for the pre-constructed narratives of reality. Welcome to Pine Hill recounts the story of Shannon, a redemptive ex-drug dealer working as an insurance claims adjuster in NYC facing a cancer diagnosis. Engendered by a chance encounter the director, Keith Miller, had with the star over a lost dog, the story takes this seed rent from life and flourishes into an imagined vision of a man saddled with mortality. In the film, Keith Miller holistically annihilates the schism between reality and fiction, creating a story that functions both as a harrowing meditation on existence, solipsism, and harmony, and as a social examination on race. One works better than the other.
The film is at its best when it quietly pries into the psyche of Shannon Harper. As a man with no prior acting experience, Shannon’s performance is captivating in his earnestness. No affectations, no histrionics. The framing works in constant close-ups over Shannon’s shoulder, his leviathan frame taking up a solid sixty to seventy percent of the shot. His isolation and captivity are palpable in all the tasks of his life, from recounting accidents of clients to sitting idly in his apartment, interspersed jarringly with Shannon kneeling at a toilet, heaving blood and viscera.
In addition to Shannon’s daily tasks, Miller implements the brutish presence of New York City to create the existential malaise that undulates in nearly every scene of the film. Whether it’s the insurance office, the confines of his studio apartment, or an examination room, the sterility and indifference of his surroundings directly inform the inescapable atmosphere of anxiety and claustrophobia that act as extra roommates to the character. After receiving the cancer diagnosis, Shannon sits in his spartan apartment at his table, adorned only by a convection oven warming over tasteless leftovers. He slides the the diagnosis and referral letter across the table and begins to eat his lonely meal. In the slow pan from Shannon on one side of the table to the folded paper at the other, Shannon’s mortality felt like a silent character, sitting idly with chin resting on palm, tapping fingers on the table, watching him eat and waiting to be acknowledged.
The enthralling narrative of Shannon and his life feels interrupted in the portions of the film when Miller tries to bring race into the mix. The occasional scene involving an encounter with racial prejudice and ignorance felt like an affront to the life of the character, as though his narrative couldn’t stand on its own laurels and the audience needed reminders of social injustice to remember this story is important. In one scene in particular, Shannon’s hanging out after work at the bar he works at as a bouncer with the bartender (who looks like she owns every Dum Dum Girls recording ever) and a barback (who looks like he knows way more about J. Mascis than you would ever want to hear about). Their performances are weak, and the barback asks goading questions about growing up in the ghetto and other mindless inquiries that make anyone with a liberal arts degree gasp and clutch their pearls. I’m in no way saying we live in a post-racial world or any of that bullshit, but for such a personal story, attempting to draw larger points on society feels out of place.
In the final leg of the tale, Shannon takes a bus out to pastoral Pine Hill, the eponymous town of the film. It is only in these last twenty minutes or so that constant presence of anxiety is finally lifted, intruding neuroses wiped clean, leaving the audience and Shannon with the tranquility of natural, open space. As he walks into the distance of a fixed shot in overgrown woods and the camera slowly dims to nothing, a deluge of empathy floods the black screen as the credits begin to march. I’m wary of any film that attempts to leave off on a kitschy platitude of harmony and namaste (or whatever it is you yoga people say), but like Shannon’s surroundings at the end, it felt natural. Shannon is at peace, and I can’t help but feel so too by proxy.