Review: Red Hook Summer


[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 Sundance Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of the film.]

Out of Hollywood and back to Brooklyn, Red Hook Summer is the type of Spike Lee film fans have been waiting for. Well, at least in theory. As per usual, Spike’s directorial style is all over the place, full of energy, and so out there that he often leaves the audience behind. The biggest problem with this ambitious, self-funded production is that it’s a not very good story about a not very good character.

Red Hook Summer
Director: Spike Lee
Rating: R
Release Date: August 10, 2012 (limited)

Red Hook Summer doesn’t make a strong first impression. Overbearing gospel music blasts over character dialogue (a problem as persistent as it is amateurish in the film), as we are introduced to Flik, a 13-year-old who views life through the lens of his iPad 2. We later learn that he is an aspiring documentarian which helps make this character trait appear as something more than quirky bullshit.

Flik’s mother leaves him in the ghetto of Red Hook, Brooklyn for the summer to live with his grandfather, because she doesn’t want him playing around their nice, safe Atlanta suburb. If you are thinking, “This makes no sense” then you should stop watching the film because the plot doesn’t become any more logical. The world of Red Hook Summer reminds me of old Nick Jr. programming. Despite taking place in a neighborhood filled with gang activity, everyone is a friendly, exuberant character that acts as if they were performing on a stage rather than occupying any kind of reality.

I like to think this is a directorial decision, as the performances are so over the top and strange that it’s hard to believe otherwise. The two main child actors deliver their lines as if they are reading a teleprompter, while Thomas Jefferson Byrd plays an alcoholic groundskeeper that wouldn’t be out of place in Bamboozled. There is an energy and spirit to the performances that makes these odd qualities easy to excuse, but they don’t mix well with Clarke Peter’s (The Wire, Treme) performance as Flik’s grandfather and Red Hook preacher Enoch.

Red Hook Summer is like Crooklyn flipped on it’s head: instead of being forced into a simpler life in the suburbs, Flik is made to give up his junk food and electronic toys in the city. Enoch believes these things go against his faith, which is all that matters to Enoch. Not a single minute with Enoch on screen goes by without him shouting about Jesus, the devil, or God. It’s a powerful performance, but the redundancy and length of the script holds him back from excellence.

The plot of Red Hook Summer is contrived and derivative of past Spike films, until we arrive at the jarring, polarizing final act that comes out of nowhere. It’s a sort of odd third act that invalidates the majority of what came before it. It’s impressive Spike is able to pull of such a tonal shift, but it just makes us care even less about characters we didn’t care much for to begin with.

It’s nice to see Spike Lee back in full-effect, bold and uncompromising. I can appreciate the film’s energy and ambition, but the lame characters and muddled plot keep this one from being a true return to form. Not even a cameo from Do the Right Thing‘s Mookie can save Red Hook Summer‘s downward spiral to the bottom of Spike’s filmography.