Red Hook Summer begins as one sort of Spike Lee movie and turns into another. When it opens with 13-year-old Flik (Jules Brown) arriving from Atlanta to visit his preacher grandfather Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook for the summer, it feels like a warm, observational Spike Lee Joint, low-budget and a little rambling. That rambling eventually takes over, though, as the film’s focus on social issues doesn’t quite come together.
For a while, the movie follows Flik’s adjustments to the rhythms of ungentrified Red Hook and his old-school grandfather. At home in Atlanta, Flik lives in a nice house in a middle-class neighborhood; in Red Hook, Enoch scrapes out a living preaching at the Little Piece of Heaven church. Enoch expects his grandson to help out at the church; Flik would rather play with his “iPad 2,” as he awkwardly and repeatedly refers to it. Enoch disdains this technology, his old-timer’s crankiness and community engagement set against Flik’s youthful skepticism and preference for screens rather than face to face encounters.
Flik’s edge is softened somewhat when he meets Chazz (Toni Lysaith), a neighborhood girl his age, who shows him around. Brown and Lysaith are both new to acting, and while their unaffected demeanors are charming, they’re amateurish too. Lee’s screenplay does them no favors, often saddling them with too much dialogue at once, which they over-enunciate and give weird emphasis; they often sound like they’re reading their lines in a single live take that will have to make do, an effect exacerbated when Lee gives them theatrical monologues at the movie’s midpoint.
Maybe Lee thought their chemistry would carry them through—and in their own story, it might have. But Peters so fully and memorably inhabits the role of the kind but righteous Enoch that he threatens to take over the movie. Early in the film, when Enoch takes Flik for a walk to meet the neighbors, Lee’s camera glides away from his main characters and follows some of the supporting characters, before Enoch and Flik catch up and rejoin the shot. This unbroken take is thrilling in its simulated spontaneity, but the movie never capitalizes on the sense of broader community it evokes. We see a few scenes of Flik and Chazz getting into mild trouble around Red Hook, and some affecting scenes as Flik and Enoch move toward mutual understanding. But by the time Red Hook Summer approaches more serious details about Enoch’s past, Peters’ strong performance overpowers everything that’s been building before, including the kids’ story.
Even before the movie reaches that tipping point, it spends too much time observing Enoch in his church. Lee has us listen to three extended sermons at Little Piece of Heaven, with so much singing and organ-playing that the movie seems almost like a musical. During the first two worship sequences, you can feel the hot air and that drowsy, churchy feeling of fighting to stay awake; it’s immersive, but also a little stultifying.
When the movie returns to church for a third time, the service feels routine, at which point Lee expertly changes pace, ending the scene with a shocking revelation. This plot turn gives the movie a jolt, and, in its way, prompts reconsideration of what has come before. It also sends Red Hook Summer spinning off in another direction, away from the slice-of-life stories of Flik and Chazz and into melodrama. The experience is equally fascinating and frustrating, and brings to mind Lee’s less disciplined films, like the overstuffed She Hate Me (2004).
In the end, Red Hook Summer has more focus and feeling than that movie, even when characters and subplots go underdeveloped. It’s obviously a labor of love; made with clear budgetary limitations, it employs thin-looking digital cinematography, as if shot through Flik’s iPad 2. Even on a shoestring, Lee makes colors pop off the screen – every character seems to be wearing a shirt in the most glorious, vivid shade possible. But when the camera switches to grainy film for establishing shots or quick montages, recalling the look of his older movies, I wished he had shot more of the Red Hook neighborhood this way, to better contrast the digital and analog styles of Flik and Enoch.
This raises the question of Red Hook Summer‘s place in Lee’s Brooklyn Chronicles. The promotional campaign presents his Brooklyn-set movies—She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Clockers, and He Got Game, along with the new film—as a series, and this makes sense, though it may be a retroactive designation (I don’t recall He Got Game being heralded as the latest Spike Lee Brooklyn Chronicle upon its release 14 years ago). Red Hook Summer feels more self-conscious about its connections to Lee’s past, both in this marketing and within the film: Mookie, Lee’s character from Do the Right Thing, even turns up here in a bit part, a nice nod, but so marginalized that it has no clear connection to the newer movie’s characters, apart from their Brooklyn residence.
The same is true of the movie itself. Lee’s more mainstream films of the past decade or so, like 25th Hour (2002) and Inside Man (2006), say more about New York City as a multitudinous whole than Red Hook Summer can manage about its corner of Brooklyn. It touches on a lot of material—gentrification, the healing power and limitations of religion, coming of age in the city—but never settles on a clear theme. That summer-y restlessness is vivid and distinct but, by its nature and possibly by its design, unsatisfying.