Spike Lee has never suffered from a lack of ambition and the most remarkable thing about his latest film, Red Hook Summer, is how it finds so many ways to be absolutely terrible. Every seed of a good idea is smothered under the weight of incompetent directing, horrible pacing, rancid dialogue, and atrocious performances from its lead child actors. The film vomits up banal editorials, slight commentary on religion, minor observations on modern filmmaking, and a vague sense of community. Many of the main characters celebrate Jesus, and that carries over to the audience when you thank Christ that the movie is over.
Flick (Jules Brown) is uprooted from his comfortable life in Atlanta and forced to stay with his estranged grandfather Enoch (Clarke Peters) over the summer in Red Hook, New York while his mother goes on a trip. Enoch, a local preacher, makes Flick spend time cleaning up the church and listening to the ravings of the drunken Deacon Z (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). While working at the church, Flick meets Chazz (Toni Lysaith), a local girl/churchgoer/most-annoying-human-being-on-the-face-of-the-planet. From there, the movie stumbles from scene to scene without much rhyme or reason, and there’s nothing organic about this approach. In one scene we have Flick using his iPad 2 to conduct an interview with a Red Hook resident, the next scene will have Enoch and one of his congregants talking about the state of black people in modern America, and the next scene will have a local gang member (Nate Parker) being all threatening. This pacing may have worked in character-driven story, but that would require multi-dimensional characters who grow and change over the course of the movie.
Even if you can justify the film’s overall form, the separate elements are indefensible. Brown and especially Lysaith are two of the worst child actors I have ever seen. Part of the problem is that Lee’s script gives them awful dialogue that no real child in the 21st century would ever say. However, Brown and Lysaith’s performances are so bad that they would get booed off the stage of a middle school play and rightfully so. Perhaps Lee thought that a hands-off approach to their performances would provide something more natural, but just the opposite occurred and we feel embarrassed every time Flick and Chazz open their mouths.
The film does have a talented actor in Peters but he’s also limited at times by the material. Outside the church, Peters makes Enoch a fairly compelling figure, but there’s nothing special or unique about the character when he’s in preacher-mode. Additionally, all of his dialogue is basically along the lines of “something, something, Jesus, something.” It’s tough to share in Enoch’s religious fervor when it seems like he’s pulling all of his material from the Standard Book of Black Preacher Sermons.
Peters can’t do anything about the cliché sermons and he can’t do anything about the dull scenes where Enoch sits on a bench with another character and they comment on the larger world. These are scenes that make us long for the days when Spike Lee had the courtesy to have characters editorialize directly to the camera. In Red Hook Summer, the conversations are just two people reciting Lee’s viewpoints and the cinematography is so stolid and staged that we’re left to wonder if Lee just wanted to make a stage play, but didn’t want to give up his visual flourishes.
Lee has no problem throwing in long takes, messing with the filters, and embracing his look-at-me shots, but with Red Hook Summer there doesn’t seem to be any method to the madness. At random points, the footage becomes over-saturated and grainy and then 10 – 20 seconds later it will revert back to normal. There’s a neat long-take scene at the beginning of the film where Enoch is introducing Flick to the neighbors, but later on Lee throws in a long-take while we watch Enoch and Deacon Z have a conversation and walk in a straight line towards the camera. It’s nice that the actors know how to remember their dialogue, but it doesn’t really matter when they’re not saying anything interesting and neither is the cinematography. The haphazard and half-hearted approach further prevents the individual scenes from adding up to anything worthwhile.
The plot lays out simple, easy plotlines and then mangles them beyond all recognition. A boy developing a positive relationship with his grandfather over the summer is a good story. Having that boy find his first love with a girl from his grandfather’s neighborhood is a good story. Having the grandfather struggle to bring money into his church is a good story. Lee ruins all of them as he aimlessly moves from one storyline to another while keeping all of the characters as undeveloped as possible.
But 103 minutes into the movie, something genuinely interesting happens. It’s not a brief moment of brilliance like Enoch talking with Flick or Lee making a particularly stylish camera shot. It’s a complete scene that’s powerful, rich, dramatic, and the basis for a far more interesting movie we’ll never see with only 27 minutes remaining in the film. But in addition to this development being too late, Lee then undermines it by throwing in a funny reference to The Wire. I won’t spoil what happens in the scene, but I will say that it shouldn’t be followed by a fourth-wall breaking joke.
At a bloated, unbearable 130 minutes, Red Hook Summer feels like a rough cut of a shorter crappy movie. Lee reprises his role as Mookie from Do the Right Thing and by using a cast of mostly unknown actors, it seems like he wants to embrace the rawness and freedom he had at the beginning of his career. The problem is that Do the Right Thing is a terrific movie that remains culturally relevant, and even at a young age, Lee showed tremendous talent. His filmmaking skills have developed over the years and while he’s still had his bombs, he’s also shown the ability to better control his bombastic tendencies in order to better serve the story. Over twenty years of development go in the gutter with Red Hook Summer because Lee believes that making a true independent film gives him license to be sloppy. Instead, it just makes him look immature and uninspired.
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: