Spike Lee explores adolescence in Red Hook Summer
A messy mix of authenticity and awkwardness: Toni Lysaith, Clarke Peters, and Jules Brown
Spike Lee returns to the Brooklyn neighborhoods of his most famous works — including his celebrated Do the Right Thing — with Red Hook Summer. His new film is an alternately evocative and lumbering portrait of a multifaceted community that focuses on Flik (Jules Brown), a prep-school 13-year-old Atlanta native sent by his mother to spend the summer in the titular neighborhood with his grandfather Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters), a man of staunch faith who finds in Flik a soul in need of saving. Having lost his father in Afghanistan, Flik doesn't believe in God and bristles at his church duties and Enoch's endless biblical quotations, preferring instead to engage his new environment through the camera of his ubiquitous iPad 2. As such, Flik serves as our proxy to this world and slowly integrates himself into a milieu that encapsulates the myriad issues facing 21st-century African Americans.
Those issues include financial hardship, gentrification, crime, religion, media, and the importance of family, all of which are tied to a story steeped in issues of forgiveness, hypocrisy, and redemption. Lee is after an all-encompassing panorama filtered through a coming-of-age tale, and his ambition is, at least initially, invigorating.
Almost immediately after touching down in Red Hook, Flik finds himself enmeshed in Enoch's universe, populated by Sister Sharon (Heather Simms), for whom Enoch has a not-so-subtle attraction; Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), a boozer who rails about missed stock-market opportunities; Box (Nate Parker), a dangerous, drug-dealing wannabe rapper; and Chazz (Toni Lysaith), Sharon's younger daughter, who threatens to tattle on Flik for munching on church potato chips before developing into his friend and first romantic crush. Lee defines these and many other players in quick, sharp snapshots that enhance Red Hook Summer's genuineness, creating an air of roiling passions, tensions, and desires.
That naturalness, unfortunately, is mitigated by a script whose theatrical speechifying becomes an increasing drag, and by the mannered performances of young leads Brown and Lysaith, with Lysaith in particular making every spoken word sound rehearsed, devoid of convincing rhythm or inflection.
Red Hook Summer never matches the smoldering hothouse atmosphere of Lee's Summer of Sam, but its narrative shagginess and raging emotions nonetheless drum up franticness and fear. It's a forceful film whose ungainliness can be vexing. Yet in its messy mix of authenticity and awkwardness, bluntness and elegance, the film also proves to be just like its adolescent protagonist: striving, in its own clumsy but earnest way, toward romantic, spiritual, and philosophical maturity.
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