There’s a homecoming sort of feeling that envelops Red Hook Summer, the new low-budget drama from venerable filmmaker Spike Lee.
It’s a story that brings Lee back to his roots, specifically Brooklyn, where he cut his filmmaking teeth more than two decades ago. Parts of the film are practically a valentine to the contemporary working-class neighborhoods of its setting, complete with all of their charms and imperfections.
So even if his script becomes too preachy and unfocused, including a shocking final-act twist that is quite disturbing, the film manages to persevere with a heartfelt vibrancy in both its setting and characters.
At its core, the film is a coming-of-age story that follows a young teenager nicknamed Flik (Jules Brown), who comes from his middle-class home in Atlanta to stay for the summer with his grandfather, the intensely pious Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters).
Their coexistence is uncertain at first. Flik is a vegan who carries around an iPad and is into social media and skateboarding, activities his grandfather considers the devil’s work. The Bishop would rather have his precocious grandson learn about the Bible and spend the summer working at the church, aiming to shield him from negative influences. Flik’s only refuge is spending time with a girl from the church (Toni Lysaith) who understands him.
Lee’s personal works always are his most provocative, and Red Hook Summer is no different in that regard. He raises several topics for discussion, some more didactic than others, ranging from generational and socioeconomic differences to matters of faith and organized religion.
The performances help to smooth out some of the rough edges, including both Peters (TV’s “The Wire”) and newcomer Brown. The Bishop’s relentless sermonizing and Flik’s aggressive defiance are equally annoying at first, but eventually the dynamic between the two becomes more convincing.
The film would have been better served by more subtlety and less self-indulgence, but it has intimate moments that are both funny and poignant. And some gospel numbers on the soundtrack are pleasant.
Despite his meandering screenplay and third-act stumble, Lee’s intentions are ambitious and the result is more than sporadically compelling. At least he has something to say, unlike many of the summer’s big-budget empty-headed alternatives.
Rated R, 121 minutes.