It takes a little time to get used to the sprawling scope and the blocky dialogue of Red Hook Summer, director Spike Lee and co-writer James McBride's follow-up to Lee's own Do the Right Thing. In Red Hook Summer, Lee and McBride take the dialectical mode of discourse that Lee employed so masterfully in Do the Right Thing and explode it in order to create a unkempt but invigorating and deeply moving daisy chain of opposing ideas. The thematic preoccupations—gentrification, religion, familial history, love—of Lee's breakthrough film are no longer phrased as an easy-to-delineate back-and-forth between two types of interlocutors; now the conversation is a mosaic. Lee's not just talking about condos vs. projects, but about faith, self-discovery, fear of change, and a generational inability to communicate with one another. Lee and McBride have created a new microcosm of uncertainty and shaky hopefulness and it's a shambling, wonderful mess.
Red Hook Summer kicks off after the sullen and angry Flick (newcomer Jules Brown) is dropped off by his mother to spend the summer with his bishop grandfather, Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters). The first half of the film passes at a glacial pace because Lee and McBride want to show the extent of Enoch's forceful personality and the equally obstinate response it elicits from Flick. Gradually, Flick and Enoch are shown to be fundamentally similar, shielding themselves from the world using their own differing defense mechanisms. Enoch believes in pre-destination and that everything will be resolved in time, so everyone might as well be happy and have faith in the present. Flick is much more absorbed in the minutiae of his new habitat, constantly filming Red Hook residents with rapt fascination on his iPad. Eventually, they both acknowledge the validity of their respective perspectives.
But before that can happen, we see the local Red Hook residents celebrating their beliefs, talking about their local heroes, lamenting roads untraveled, howling in protest at life's various injustices, and speculating about white yuppies, whose presence is felt but rarely seen—such as the absent tenants of a condo overlooking Enoch's projects complex. Change is on the way for these Brooklyn natives and the only way they can understand and shape its course is to dive into the thick of things and get lost in conflicts where all complainants have semi-valid opinions. Red Hook Summer is set in a rich, thriving world that has both the potential to self-destruct and to be rejuvenated by its community leaders. It's a rousing drama and certainly Lee's most hopeful since 9/11.
In spite of its lead actors' commendably rewarding performances, Smashed's drama is just as contrived as it is believably humane. It's a thoroughly predictable story inhabited by sympathetic characters. Director/co-writer James Ponsoldt's biggest success is consequently his accomplished direction of actors Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul.
Winstead stars as Kate, a grade school teacher who decides she needs to stop drinking in order to prevent herself from further hurting herself and her loved ones. Kate eventually spirals out of control after doing her best to go to AA and stay dry. But she only does this after she's pushed over the edge by the insensitivity of others. The plot of Smashed is, in other words, structured in such a way that it lets Kate off the hook for her inevitable lapse in judgment. Which is a shame since both Kate and her boyfriend Charlie (Paul) are actually worth caring about.
Kate's problems really begin after she barfs in front of her students. One student asks her if she's pregnant and Kate freezes, then lies and says that, yes, she's pregnant. This white lie almost immediately bites Kate in the ass when Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally) overzealously tells Kate how excited and jealous she is of Kate's pregnancy.
Kate also quickly gets caught in her lie by Dave (Nick Offerman), a fellow teacher and former alcoholic. Dave kindly offers to bring Kate to AA and starts her off on the road to sobriety. But quitting drinking predictably puts Kate at odds, first with Charlie and then indirectly with both Dave and Principal Barnes. Charlie and Barnes's inevitable falling-out with Kate is especially disheartening, as they only make life difficult for Kate for clichéd reasons: Dave has a crush on Kate and Barnes is experiencing childbirth through her.
Still, Charlie and Kate are both believable protagonists. Charlie is the weaker of the two characters, a cipher whose blanks are filled in by Paul's strong performance; he inhabits his skimpy role and makes Charlie look like an un-self-conscious monster. And Winstead's performance as Kate is even more exciting because of its unostentatious nature. She's the girl next door that just happened to make one bad decision too many and is now trying very hard to do right by the people she loves.
Kate's not an extraordinary or even remarkable character, but that's paradoxically what makes Winstead's performance so good: She disappears into the role, never acting, simply reacting. It's that lack of artifice that makes Smashed's lame narrative such a disappointment. Winstead and Paul only serve to highlight everything that the rest of Ponsoldt's film sorely lacks.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.