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Sundance 2012 Review: ‘Red Hook Summer’

‘I’m sure lots of viewers won’t like 130 minutes of religious sermon, but imagine being the kid stuck there for three months.’

Spike Lee’s new film got a divisive reaction at Sundance. I liked it for what it is and I could totally see where if you weren’t along for that ride, it wouldn’t work at all. I’ve been in the latter boat on Spike Lee joints like Crookyln or She Hate Me, but being in the festival mood I was interested in what Lee was trying.

Red Hook Summer is essentially a non-narrative film. Flik (Jules Taylor Brown) is sent to live with his grandfather Enoch (Clarke Peters) for the summer. Enoch is a preacher so the film is just Flik trying to survive a summer with religion forced on him and learning to get around in the Red Hook neighborhood, a community which ranges from playful neighborhood girl Chazz (Toni Lysaith) to a vicious gang of Bloods.

It’s kind of cool that Lee can do a non plot movie, just paint a portrait of a culture. That certainly makes it slower than an Inside Man or Clockers but he does both kinds of movies. Crooklyn bored my teenage mind but now I can appreciate this sort of film. Now I’m so sick of plots I want to experience something different.

This is Brown and Lysaith’s first movie and Lee is definitely interested in their natural delivery. Calling them non-actors, even criticizing their screen presence, would be valid but I think that’s the point. Lee gets them to do really long takes of dialogue, and they stumble their way to some lines, but it seems natural. Natural as in I find these kids annoying in real life, but I’m interested in where it’s going on film.

It captures the way kids tease each other, flinging dead rats around and making up words like “likeded.” They get into some funny child’s play, like carving their name in wet cement. It’s funny and innocent, but yeah they are vandalizing that poor lady’s front stoop.

Enoch is really inflexible. I mean, Flik definitely needs to learn some values, but “God this, God that” isn’t going to reach him. I’m sure lots of viewers won’t like 130 minutes of religious sermon, but imagine being the kid stuck there for three months. This is obviously a real culture that Lee wanted to explore, so presenting it in the most uncomfortable extreme is valid for that thesis. I think Flik learns more from his encounter with the Bloods. God’s not going to teach him to behave, but nearly getting his ass kicked by gang bangers will.

Lee has his characters address the camera directly again, although instead of spouting racism to make a point, you’ve got Jehovah’s Witnesses talking religion. There are meta touches like a WNBA announcer seeming to speak to Flik and Chazz. There’s even a slam on Tyler Perry hidden in background posters.

Though the film is shot digitally, it still looks like a Spike Lee film. You can tell by the colors, bright reds and yellows. It would stand side by side with Do the Right Thing, and he’s still able to mix different types of film stock looks, cutting away to saturated grainy footage. I kind of think it would look good in 3D with the compositions of all the neighborhood streets.

I guess I’m looking at technique here. Getting kids to remember their lines is somewhat more impressive than having them actually be good actors. I never thought all of Lee’s tricks worked (like attaching cameras to his actors), but he’s still finding new ways to play with the format. And we get Oldboy next!
 

CraveOnline Rating: 6/10