Picks and Pans Review: Crooklyn

updated 05/16/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, Zelda Harris

The pleasures of a Spike Lee movie lie more often in the characters than in the narrative, more in the small, deftly observed moments than in the Big Picture. That's because with Lee, the big picture is frequently imbued with strident moralizing. Crooklyn, the saga of a black family struggling to make ends meet and make sense of things in '70s Brooklyn, holds to the pattern. Both slight and affecting, it is Lee's most conventional, most affectionate work.

As in most Spike Lee movies, the director has a cameo, this time as a neighborhood pariah with a glue-sniffing habit. Woodard is a schoolteacher and mother of five, a woman with a gimlet eye and a terrible swift sword. She's quite capable of hauling her contentious brood out of bed in the middle of the night when they have neglected to clean the kitchen. Woodard is no less fierce with her husband (Lindo), an unemployed, idealistic jazz musician. But Woodard's wrath is essentially turned away by her winsome, scapegrace, petty-thief only daughter (Harris), through whose eyes Crooklyn unfolds.

It's a small, slice-of-life story of a block where games of hopscotch, jump rope, stoopball and stickball are hotly contested, of a very loud home where dinners of black-eyed peas are greeted with dismay, penny candy is consumed eagerly and television is watched surreptitiously and constantly. In one of the movie's best ironic moments, the five children lustily sing along with the Partridge Family. But Crooklyn, while marvelously enriched by the period sound track, is not as well put together as it ought to be. Harris's trip to Virginia to visit her uncle, cousin and religious fanatic aunt, for example, seems snipped from a reel of another film. And while this movie seems to want to explore the relationship between a mother and daughter and is about a young girl's coming of age, little happens onscreen or even subtextually to support such themes. But Woodard does her usual fine, fine work, and Harris is a real find. (PG-13)

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