In Keith Miller’s debut feature “Welcome to Pine Hill,” it was the director’s commitment to realism that separated it from other character studies, taking an incident between himself and the stranger who would ultimately play the film’s lead (Shannon Harper) over the rights to a lost pet and using it as a springboard for an examination of a young man trying to make a life for himself in spite of his troubled youth and his diminishing health. The film felt like an exploration on a number of fronts, not only for its central character, but for the director, who was largely unconcerned with narrative as he would push scenes well past their natural breaking points just to see where conversations would go and to let air in to make the experience feel more tangible.
If “Pine Hill” was about a man looking for his place in the world onscreen and off, Miller’s second feature “Five Star” has more confidence in telling the story of a man who lets the world come to him. Undoubtedly utilizing some of the same methodology that made the director’s last feel so immediate, Miller once again casts a lead who lived his part before playing it in James “Primo” Grant, a former member of the Bloods gang who goes by his real name onscreen. While physically fitting the usual description of drug pushers we’ve seen before, Grant puts all that aside from the second he opens his mouth, drawing you in as much with his soft-spoken nature as his considerable laid-back charisma.
Introduced by Miller ruminating about the birth of his child. Primo has a taste for money, but only to pay the bills for his family’s modest apartment and while there’s no mistaking his authority amongst the assorted hoods who populate the nearby park, he doesn’t advertise his position or his power. However, his life is starting to look pretty attractive to John (John Diaz), a teen whose father was an associate of Primo’s before he was killed under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Still, that doesn’t deter John from beginning to run errands for Primo, who is beginning to look towards a life out of crime.
Boiled down to a written plot synopsis, “Five Star” would sound as if it covers familiar ground as it pits the entry of a hungry newcomer trying to break into a gang against an aging boss attempting to make a graceful exit. But the film’s nuances actually break new ground, deglamorizing gang life to an even greater degree than “The Wire,” arguably the gold standard of such onscreen stories, and showing more interest in investigating John and Primo’s struggles with the identities that have been plotted out for them than their dealings with rival gangs.
Still, with a thicker thread to grasp onto as far as a plot and a particularly compelling turn by Grant, “Five Star” proves more accessible than “Welcome to Pine Hill” without sacrificing any of its raw energy. Often Miller will catch an expression or a piece of likely improvised dialogue that will illuminate the darkened backrooms where its characters have been forced to live. When Primo tells John early on in his education, “Ain’t no sympathy in this shit. It’s real,” it’s unforgiving and true, qualities that would seem to define “Five Star” as a whole.