REVIEW: A boy is sent to New York to spend the summer with his grandfather, a Baptist minister.
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 met his grandfather, who is rarely without his Bible.
A neighbor from the projects, Chazz (Toni Lysaith), befriends Flik and becomes his conduit for the Red Hook neighborhood. 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 handheld 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.
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.