Observational-style shakycam American independents are as plentiful as cat memes these days, but rare are those that don’t passively act as if the presence of the camera provided meaning enough. Filmmaker Keith Miller’s threads his docu-realist debut feature with actual storytelling, as well as a welcome shot of 1970s urban existentialism. Shannon (Shanon Harper) is a former Brooklyn street hustler who’s trying to live a straight life as an insurance-claims adjuster in midtown. When he learns of the malignant cancer in his stomach—a condition that he lacks the insurance to treat—Shannon contemplates a more significant departure, visiting the old neighborhood to pay off debts and taking a bus upstate with no plans but to lose himself.
As established from the outset via an awkward (and unnecessary) prologue in which Shannon haggles over a found dog with a suspicious neighbor (played by Miller himself), Welcome to Pine Hill precariously navigates the line between representing the perspective of a black male and projecting a white man’s guilt onto it. Miller’s ace in the hole is the hulking, regal Harper, whose round face vacillates between childlike mirth and lung-stomping sadness. His casual charisma not only commands our attention and affection, it sidelines every social or thematic concern to this singular, tentatively aspiring life.
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