SPIKE LEE'S "Red Hook Summer" is an erratic mix of one-crazy-summer high jinks and gathering unease that explodes, finally, in jarring conclusion.
It has echoes, in that structure, of Lee's "Do the Right Thing" - Lee appears as the same character he played 23 years ago - though "Red Hook" lacks the sustained energy and poise of that landmark movie.
"Red Hook" is the story of Flick, a suburban Atlanta teen dumped for a summer into the big-city tumult of a Red Hook housing development in New York. This pivotal role goes to Jules Brown, an apparently untutored performer, though one whose casting does not pay the same dividends as nonactor Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
On the plus side, Clarke Peters is commanding in a large and expansive role as the boy's grandfather Enoch, a colorful local preacher and the boy's guardian during his fish-out-of-water stay in Brooklyn.
It helps "Red Hook" that Peters' character arc and performance slowly come to dominate the movie - Enoch's struggles to provide moral refuge and instruction in a neighborhood with a host of social problems, the unfolding drama of his mysterious past.
"Red Hook," as is typical of Lee's work, is a collection of loosely related vignettes, and in this case tends to lose its way when the drama strays from Peters' character. The movies feels sluggish when it focuses on Flick - his compulsion to record (on his iPad) what he sees in Red Hook rather than immerse himself in the community and his relationship with a local girl (Toni Lysaith).
There is some charm in the first-love trappings of the latter, but not enough - their performances are a clashing mix of naturalism and exaggerated style.
"Red Hook" also exhibits Lee's tendency to overexplain - there is a really nice image here of the young girl writing her name in the wet cement of a sidewalk in front of a rehabbed house on a street where new families and new money are bringing change. We get the picture and, alas, also the thousand words - a subsequent lecture on the perils of gentrification.
And there are Lee's stylistic gestures, which can rub a viewer the wrong way. He loves, for instance, to layer an unmodulated piano jazz track at high volume over routine dialogue - it leaves you straining to hear what folks are saying, without adding emotional shape to the scenes.
You will have no trouble picking out the emotional contours of the movie's tumultuous final scenes, and although Peters holds the drama together, late-game revelations raise narrative questions that are left glaringly unanswered.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.