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Welcome to Pine Hill (2013)

February 28, 2013

7/10 Last Days

Might not be for everyone, but it’s as real as anything I’ve seen in ages.

Welcome to Pine Hill is about a young man making a life for himself in New York City after spending most of his life off the straight and narrow. He’s got a good job at an insurance agency, he bounces on the side, and keeps in touch with his old friends who are still on the block, wheeling and dealing. But then one day, tragedy enters into this young man’s life and his world is turned upside-down. So he starts repaying old debts, revisits his old stomping grounds, and tries to figure out what to do next before time runs out.

Folks, there’s really something to be said for movies that cast first-time actors in leading roles. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that felt so natural it could pass for a documentary, so it’s always nice to report back on one that does. For everything there is to dwell on about this movie, I figured this was as good a place to start as any because not only was it the first thing that grabbed my attention, but it ties into a lot of things that have made this movie linger with me since.

Now, the cast is led by one Shannon Harper who plays our man of the hour, Abu. Legend has it that he landed this part after getting into a confrontation of sorts with director after the former lost his dog and the latter ended up adopting it. It’s a meeting that’s actually depicted in the first scene of the movie, a scene that does a great job of staging the scene and setting the tone for what follows. And right off the bat, the kid is fantastic.

His is a performance that’s as understated as it is genuine, one that’s almost hard to even call a “performance” since it’s clear that Harper is just being himself the whole time. The only catch is that there a couple times where his authentic nature just makes other performances look like what we’d expect from first-time actors, like they’re just reading off a script instead of doing what comes natural. Not that hardest thing to overlook, but when those characters are being ignorant-ass fools, it does make them seem ignorant to a fault at times. And that’s no bueno when you’re going for realism.

But like I said, the upside is that these are just a couple instances in a movie that’s chock full of authentic moments and performances. I’m talking about a movie where it often doesn’t feel like the cameras are even there, where it often doesn’t seem like there’s even a script for this cast to work with. And those are all good things, and more than anything else, it’s that atypical realism that’s so special and refreshing about this movie.

Still, it’s a deceptively simple and slowly paced movie, and I can see how some might be turned off by how it plays out as such. But at the end of the day, the truth is that life itself tends to be deceptively simple and carefully paced. And while there’s some really heavy stuff going on this movie, stuff that would lead most characters to break down and lash out at the unjust world around them, Welcome to Pine Hill is devoid of all that melodrama and there’s a lot to take away from it in turn.

It’s a movie about living; about dying; about ignorance; about understanding. With that being said, it’s very open-ended and leaves a whole lot of room for interpretation, especially when you’re spending so much time just trying to read what’s going through Abu’s head. It’s also a movie that will resound quite differently with everyone who sees it because how one reads into it is very much a result of one’s life experiences. But even if it is unfamiliar, even if Abu’s life is nothing like your own, his struggles and how he copes with them are unquestionably universal.

Welcome to Pine Hill is a quiet, fascinating character study that I’m still trying to fully unravel, which is also why I don’t have more to say about it at the moment. But even if I did, it’s nevertheless a story that’s better suited for a discussion than a review. Unfortunately, for all the people that will be as intrigued by it as I was, I can’t help but feel like it will border on “boring” for others. Because, yes, the pacing is slow, and no, not much happens; but by the same token, those are some of the things that struck me about it most.

These days, we are flat-out inundated with movies that beat us over the head with the harsh realities of life and how we come to terms. So to have something like this come along to remind us what it’s really like to be human, what it’s really like to deal, now that’s the kind of movies we could use more of, the kind of movie worth seeking out. And for those who do, let’s the discussion begin.

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