A YEAR WITHOUT RENT IN PARK CITY: “WELCOME TO PINE HILL” AND “COMFORTING SKIN”
There isn’t really a press lounge at Slamdance. There’s a Filmmaker Lounge, which is open sometimes, and there’s a Carhartt Lounge, which is open sometimes, and there’s a couple of comfortable chairs in the hallways, which are empty sometimes. Other than that, you’re kind of on your own. But if you can get in the Filmmaker Lounge, it’s probably the best place to get some work done, even though the wifi isn’t very good.
You end up overhearing a lot of interviews this way. Some people like that. I don’t. It’s the worst kind of spoiler. Invariably, you’ll find yourself sitting next to the director of the film you’re about to watch.
All you can do is hope the film is good and try to ignore the spoilers. If you’re lucky, the filmmaker sitting next to you will spare you the spoiler, which is how I was very pleasantly surprised by the third act of Keith Miller’s Welcome to Pine Hill.
Welcome to Pine Hill (which won the Grand Jury Prize) stars Shannon Harper as Shannon Harper, an insurance adjuster in New York City who’s attempting to leave his drug dealing life behind. He’s an intimidating guy, a large black man whom the script suggests has done some very bad things in his past life. But he’s clean now, living the corporate life in Manhattan.
He also has a very rare form of stomach cancer.
Welcome to Pine Hill is a meditative film about dealing with your past, about settling debts and tying up loose ends. At the center is Harper, a non-actor Miller talked into starring in the film, and he’s fantastic. He’s quite literally the film. He’s in every scene, and even though he’s likely playing a version of himself, it’s a measured, consistent performance from beginning to end. I’d call it a breakthrough role, but that assumes he’ll act again. Hopefully he will.
The film has a vérité style, which works for a lot of it, even if it does at times feel too loose and un-composed. The cinematography and sound design could be better. It’s not as glaring an issue as in Heavy Girls, but it’s noticeable and distracting all the same. The theme in talking about the film in the lobby afterward is that while it’s nicely made, you wish that the technical aspects of the film were up to the bar set by Harper and the story. When those two aspects are peaking, nothing else in the film matters. They’re that compelling. But in the other moments, you really wish the film looked better. Overall it’s a strong film, but it could be really strong.
You could almost say the reverse about Derek Franson’s Comforting Skin, a psycho sexual thriller that looks fantastic, but gets hampered by a story that can’t keep up.
Victoria Bidewell stars as Koffie, a nice girl who longs to be noticed at night clubs. But more than that, she longs for intimacy. She goes to a seedy tattoo parlor on a whim and gets a tattoo. Naturally, it gets infected, and then it gets kind of possessed. And then she starts having sex with it.
You read that correctly.
It’s kind of a laughable premise, but Bidewell sells it. In a script that requires he to be all over the map, she hits all those notes and the film is strongest when viewed as a showcase for her range. The scene just after she gets the tattoo is one of the most convincing portrayals of pure joy I’ve seen on screen in a long time.
Her roommate is played by Tygh Runyan (who’s also in Doppelgänger Paul) and Runyan is tasked with attempting to ground the film in some sense of normalcy, which he does quite well. His is a much more quiet performance, the type of second lead where you wonder why he isn’t in the film more, especially since there seems to be suggestions of subplots that used to be in the film. But I guess ultimately the film isn’t about him. It’s about Koffie and love affair with the tattoo.
I don’t have to tell you this goes badly. A possessed tattoo probably can’t lead to a happy ending. It’s worth noting the strength of Adam Sliwinski’s cinematography and the VFX of a tattoo that spends most of the film shifting on Koffie’s skin. The film looks good.
Here’s the thing: you’ve already seen this film. It’s Black Swan, minus the ballet (and Mila Kunis). Is it well-made? Yes. It’s well-acted too. But it’s over-the-top from Fade In and feels more like a tribute to Darren Aronofsky than a real story.
My friend Matt likes to say that all explosions pretty much look the same. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. You could say the same thing about tattoos that shift on someone’s skin. They quickly get boring.
Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.