[A series of daily updates on screenings at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. For more follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter @GeoffBerkshire.]
Spike Lee fans have learned to expect the unexpected. After the big studio Oscar-bait flop that was 2008’s “Miracle at St. Anna,” the director does a complete 180 with his follow-up narrative feature: the bare bones, rambling, passionate coming-of-age drama “Red Hook Summer.” Among one of Lee’s most indulgent works (which is saying something), the film is also one of his most fascinating.
iPad-obsessed Atlanta teenager Flik (Jules Brown) is sent to spend a summer with his preacher grandfather Enoch (Clarke Peters of “The Wire” and “Treme”) in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook. We're casually introduced to its residents and the reverend's professional life at church while Lee simultaneously tracks the slow building and sweet-natured romance between Flik and sassy local girl Chazz (Toni Lysaith). The lingering scenes of neighborhood life are enough to raise hopes that "Red Hook" may be the unofficial follow-up to “Do the Right Thing” some fans had been hoping for; Lee even revisits his Mookie character on screen in several amusing throwaway scenes (and yes, he’s still delivering Sal’s pizza).
But the results don’t always sizzle. Some of the material works great (Heather Alicia Simms' wonderful supporting turn as Chazz’s protective mother), some deserves more time (James Ransone’s vivid but brief appearances as a community camp counselor, Nate Parker’s captivating performance as a drug dealer and aspiring rapper), and some could be reined in (Lee regular Thomas Jefferson Byrd's long-winded scenes as a cranky deacon in Enoch’s church). And then there are Enoch’s sermons. So many that at times, you’ll feel like you’re in the church of Spike. Given the rich happenings outside of the sermons, anyone looking for another “Do the Right Thing” may be disappointed by the emphasis on religion over race relations and neighborhood politics.
Even so, all of Lee’s hallmarks are intact, from the gorgeously bombastic music and the hyper-saturated visuals to the playful flourishes in the camerawork. We even get a few peeks into what’s on Spike’s pop culture radar: from loving nods to “The Wire” to not-so-loving jabs at Tyler Perry. And as in many of the director's movies, the story gets far more complicated in the final act. There’s a surprise revelation that turns the narrative on its head, but also allows for Peters to shine while galvanizing many of the film's complex themes involving spirituality, morality, responsibility and salvation.
“Red Hook Summer” may be excessive and a bit messy, but it isn’t like any other movie at Sundance, and it’s not like any other movie Spike Lee has made. It’s another bold vision from one of the most vital and continually surprising storytellers working today.
Quick hits on more Sundance 2012 titles:
- “Save the Date”: A lot of films bill themselves as anti-romantic comedies, but, for a good stretch, “Save the Date” seems like the real deal. I had a very conflicted reaction to this relationship dramedy, one of many—too many—at this year's festival. At first, I couldn’t stand the characters in writer-director Michael Mohan’s film (his second following 2010's micro-budget Sundance indie “One Too Many Mornings”). The cast isn't the problem: Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie play sisters whose significant others (Geoffrey Arend and Martin Starr, respectively) are both members of the same indie rock band. Brie and Starr's characters are engaged, while Caplan and Arend's have just taken the major step of moving in together. Things turn upside down when Caplan’s obnoxious but apparently irresistible commitment-phobe freaks out after receiving her own marriage proposal, and promptly dumps her boyfriend before jumping into a relationship with a casual acquaintance (Mark Webber).
From there the film spins into what I thought was a gradually developing portrait of a woman (Caplan) who simply doesn’t want to be in a long-term relationship and a couple (Brie and Starr) trying to decide if marriage is the right choice for them. Ultimately, it’s both more complicated and considerably less interesting than that, bolstered somewhat by strong performances from Caplan and Starr, with Brie overcoming her role’s brittle nature in the second half.
- “The End of Love”: “Save the Date” supporting player Webber takes center stage here as writer-director-star of a bittersweet story about a young widower trying to raise his two-year-old son (Webber's own son, Isaac Love). Their dynamic is the heart and soul of this vérité style drama, more focused on observation than narrative. There's a lovely romantic subplot involving Webber and a single mom (Shannyn Sossamon), and an excessively long detour into a young Hollywood party at Michael Cera's house (where Cera, Aubrey Plaza, Alia Shawkat, Michael Angarano and others play themselves). But as long as the film stays focused on the naturalistic interactions of Webber and Love, it's a minor wonder.
- “Liberal Arts”: “How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radnor won the Sundance Dramatic Competition Audience Award just two years ago with his directorial debut “happythankyoumoreplease,” which was barely noticed in its brief theatrical release. Now he’s back with another writer-director-star effort that isn’t sharp, memorable or impressive enough to find much attention outside of film festivals.
Radnor stars as a frustrated 35-year-old New York City college professor who returns to his beloved Ohio alma mater for the retirement of his mentor (Richard Jenkins). He meets and instantly falls for a 19-year-old co-ed (Elizabeth Olsen) with the cutesy nickname Zibby. In some ways they’re the perfect match. She’s still searching and figuring out the world, and he has barely progressed since graduation, at least mentally. Radnor’s incredibly cloying dialogue makes nearly every character sound like an overeager undergrad straining to make profound statements about art and life. Surprisingly, “Liberal Arts” isn’t a straightforward romance between the two—Radnor actually understands that differences in age and experience can trump attraction. But, as Olsen says in the film: “You think it’s cool to hate this, but it’s not. It’s boring.” So we’ll leave it at that…
Check out the full collection of 2012 Sundance Film Festival diaries