With Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee is back in Brooklyn and back in the role of Mookie, the pizza delivery boy in Do the Right Thing, who is now a pizza delivery man. Mookie doesn’t have a large role to play here, though. His presence is more of a signal that Lee is trying to get back to the kind of films that made him such a celebrated director in the first place: city stories about race, culture, and society. Unfortunately, it’s not quite the return to form that fans of the filmmaker might be hoping for, but Red Hook Summer still has flashes of his old greatness, and some moments of arresting power.

Thirteen-year-old Silas “Flik” Royale (Jules Brown) is sent by his mother from Atlanta to live with his preacher grandfather for the summer. Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) ministers the ramshackle Lil’ Piece of Heaven Baptist Church in the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn. The Bishop grapples with his small, impoverished flock, encroaching gentrification, and the myriad crime and drug problems that plague the projects he lives in. This is the first time that Flik and his grandfather have ever met, and things don’t start out well. Flik resents being put to work in the church, as well as the Bishop’s incessant attempts to convert him, while the Bishop dislikes how Flik constantly hides behind his iPad 2, and his severe lack of street smarts. Over the course of the summer, Flik falls in puppy love with the devout Chazz (Toni Lysaith), learns more about the world, and gradually comes to understand his grandfather.

The two child actors are by far the weakest links in the movie, to the point where they almost threaten to sink it entirely. Only sporadically are they able to deliver lines with any verve, or act naturally. They’re flat and awkward, and it’s awkward to watch them try to work with the slang-heavy dialogue they’re given. In the mouths of better actors, these words would sing.

Fortunately, the adults more than pick up the slack, especially Clarke Peters. Best known as an alum of the celebrated HBO series The Wire and Treme, Peters is a fiery powerhouse here. He’s effortless in portraying Bishop Enoch’s world-weariness, wisdom, intelligence, and most of all his seemingly endless passion for Jesus. There are three long sermon scenes in the movie that are saved from dragging or becoming repetitive solely by Peter’s righteous energy. And when the film takes a drastically different turn in its last act, he’s called on for an entirely different kind of performance, and rises to the occasion magnificently. When Flik learns some upsetting truths about his grandfather, the Bishop becomes humbled and sorrowful, and Peters affects himself almost as a falling saint.

The movie is far too long, filled with redundant scenes of various members of the community doing the same things. Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) is a drunk, local gangster Box (Nate Parker) distrusts the Bishop, Sister Morningstar (Heather Alicia Simms) holds her dignity despite her troubles, etc. These traits are clear the first time around that each of these characters are introduced, and yet the film keeps hammering them home without any further development. Additionally, Lee’s ugly penchant for having characters unsubtly monologue his ideological points to the audience rears its head on occasion. All this combined with the lack of engagement on the part of the kids makes the movie a downright slog at times.

However, there’s a turn in the last act that, while far from redeeming the movie, goes a long way towards making its flaws forgivable, or at least bearable. Lee is working on a kind of anti-Tyler Perry vibe here, questioning the hallowed role of religion in African American life. There’s a shocking revelation that throws a good deal of the rest of the film into a darker context. It draws up unpleasant but necessary questions about faith, trust, sin, forgiveness, and redemption. In this section, Lee completely becomes his old self again, in all the best ways possible. It’s fierce, intelligent and completely uncompromising. There’s one scene that easily matches anything in Killer Joe in sheer discomfort. If only the rest of the film were on this level, it would be a true new classic in the mold of Do the Right Thing or 25th Hour.

Spike Lee has always been unapologetically confrontational with his work, and Red Hook Summer is no different. Due to an overstuffed running time and weak child actors, the message doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it could have, but it’s still a strong one. Some viewers probably won’t find the amazing last act worth the wobbly first two-thirds, and that’s somewhat understandable. But, if nothing else, this film definitively demonstrates that Lee hasn’t yet lost his touch.