Red Hook Summer, the latest Spike Lee joint, is cinematic sleight of hand: Just when you're immersed in a coming-of-age story, he T-bones you with a doozy of a twist.
Flik Royale (newcomer Jules Brown) is a middle-class 13-year-old kid from Atlanta, forced by his otherwise indulgent mother to spend the summer with a total stranger, his grandfather Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), in the Red Hook housing projects. Working every day in Lil' Piece of Heaven Baptist Church, Flik finds respite in the company of young Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith).
Flik spends much of the summer (and the film) sullenly cleaning up his grandfather's church or suffering through sermons that end with Enoch's pleas for him to come to Jesus. But it's hard to get inside this film. It's shot in a visually oppressive palette, all wood panel browns and cement grays. A bright spot is the bubbly Lysaith, who, unlike the hyper-verbal girls of most modern cinema, is immature and over-developed and everything 13-year-olds really are. The other is Lee's not-so-subtle game of guess the cameo.
Peters, best known for his role as Det. Lester Freamon on HBO's The Wire, has plenty of company with other series alum. Along with a cast full of Spike Lee regulars, they appear to be reprising their iconic roles, taking them to their logical conclusion or redeeming themselves in some kind of alternate universe. James Ransone, The Wire's ill-fated wanksta Ziggy, is Kevin, who runs a program for neighborhood kids. Tracy Camilla Johns, lusty Nola Darling from 1986's She's Gotta Have It, is now Mother Darling, a street corner evangelist who's lost her son to AIDS. Lee himself speedwalks through several scenes as a greying Mister Mookie. Even The Wire's dirty Congressman Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) comes back as ostensibly legitimate Det. Flood, uttering his trademark expletive after a failed interrogation.
In Red Hook, redemption seems to be the name of the game. But some things prove easier to forgive than others. Lee pulls out the kitchen sink with this film, dealing with the AIDS epidemic, religious intolerance, street culture, abuse, forgiveness and the lack thereof. But this self-financed project could have benefitted from some editing. A supporting cast of stellar character actors gets too little time and real estate, with Lee favoring Peters and Brown in practically every frame. Young actors, wooden dialogue and a flabby second act threaten to drag the movie under. It's redeemed by a plot twist, neither cheap nor tidy, that throws the familiar into a spin and speaks to Lee's talent for empathy, if not pacing. The last half hour is spent wondering how well you can ever really know anyone.
Red Hook Summer is neither the highest nor the lowest point in Lee's oeuvre of everyday life in his beloved Brooklyn. Fans of Do the Right Thing and He Got Game, who aren't bent on easy answers, should give it a shot. You won't enjoy it, but it will stay with you.
(Red Hook Summer opens tomorrow in Charlotte.)