Spike Lee's movies generally attempt too much, try too many things, canvass a larger array of characters and situations than even a loosely structured story line can easily accommodate. And that's one of the gratifying traits in his work.
"Red Hook Summer," the latest in Lee's Brooklyn-set ensemble affairs, starts in one key and shifts three or four times into quite another, and then sends you out with a soaring visual and musical tribute to the faces and landmarks of the film's setting. A sullen, Spike Lee-like 13-year-old who calls himself Flik (Jules Brown), up from Atlanta, is deposited by his mother (De'Adre Aziza) for the summer with his grandfather, Baptist Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters). The boy, rarely without his iPad 2, has never before met his grandfather, rarely without his Bible.
A neighbor from the projects, Chazz (Toni Lysaith), befriends Flik and becomes his conduit for the Red Hook neighborhood, though their companionship — typical of female/male relations of any age in most Lee films — is driven by edgy, defensive repartee, so that the friendship part has to be taken on faith or turned over to nonverbal montages. Flik's experiences with gang members (Nate Parker plays Box) take a back seat to his evolving relationship with his grandfather.
Lee turns up on camera, briefly, as the pizza delivery character from the film that remains his peak accomplishment, "Do the Right Thing." Two of Lee's fullest achievements to date, the documentaries "When the Levees Broke" and "4 Little Girls," brought out both the judicious observer and the stylist in the director. His narrative fiction features, by contrast, can get hung up on Lee's five-disc-shuffle mode of aesthetics, marked by rotating film stocks and hand-held footage alternating with such conceits as Lee's glide-cam shot, reserved for the moment when the bishop meets someone he used to know before he came to Red Hook.
The melodrama central to the film's key plot development doesn't entirely come off. But some of the scenes really sing, with or without the music. Many of the scenes in "Red Hook Summer" unfold within the confines of the Lil' Peace of Heaven church. The way Peters dominates the frame in the gospel numbers, it's as if Lee was admitting that the real truth in any movie lies in what is never stated directly in dialogue. The kids at the core of "Red Hook Summer," as written and performed, remain sketches at best. But Lee (who co-wrote the film as well as directed) remains steadfast in staring down race, class, faith, bittersweet mid-Obama realities and an old-fashioned narrative secret, buried too long on what one character calls "the low-low." You wouldn't call "Red Hook Summer" steadfast in any other way, however. It's a scramble, marked by the unruly variety of visual strategies Lee prefers.
'Red Hook Summer' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for brief violence, language and a disturbing situation)
Running time: 2:01
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun