Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Starring: Skylan Brooks, Ethan Dizon
George Tillman, Jr.'s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete occupies a space somewhere in between fairy tale and gritty reality. A story about two kids in dire circumstances, Mister and Pete is equally aware of the vulnerability and the durability of children and divides its time about equally between the two modes. It isn't always a successful film, particularly when it comes to its adult characters, but when it focuses on the two boys at its center, the film works wonderfully, moving easily between humor and tragedy, between triumph and desolation. Movies that rely so heavily on the performances of child actors can be a gamble, but Tillman struck gold with his stars Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon, who carry the story with ease and turn in deeply felt and deeply compelling performances.
The story opens on the last day of the school year with its protagonist, 13 year old Mister (Brooks), receiving the news that he's going to have to repeat the grade. He's gutted by the news but quickly focuses his attention on the one bright spot in his life: an open audition coming up in August which he believes is going to be his big break, taking him out of the projects in Brooklyn and to a life of luxury and stardom in Beverly Hills. When he gets home, however, reality hits him in the face. His mother (Jennifer Hudson) is jonesing for a fix, there's no food in the apartment and the benefits card is empty, and he's stuck with a shadow in the form of Pete (Dizon), a neighbor whose mother, a drug addicted prostitute who works for the same pimp as Mister's mother, is currently MIA. When the police receive a tip and raid the tenement building, Mister's mother is arrested and Mister and Pete have to hide in order to avoid being apprehended and taken into care. Determined to wait it out until Mister's mother is released from custody, Mister and Pete hide out in Mister's apartment, making do as best they can with the extremely limited resources they've been left with.
As the days pass, the empty fridge becomes emptier, and Mister's mother fails to come home, Mister and Pete decide that they'll have to pawn what they can in order to get food. However, while they are briefly out of the apartment, it is broken into and everything of value is taken. Desperate, Mister and Pete resort to theft themselves, breaking into an apartment and taking a benefits card they find on the kitchen table and then using it to go on a spending spree at a grocery store. Not long after, however, the power gets turned off at the apartment and much of the food starts to spoil, and Mister is unable to get either a cooler or ice in order to alleviate the situation. Help seems like it's about to come in the form of Alice (Jordin Sparks), a former resident of the tenement who is now being kept by an older man and who has a soft spot for Mister, but after she disappears following the break up of her relationship, Mister and Pete seem to be truly on their own. The summer passes, the police continue to periodically drop by the apartment looking for Mister, and Pete begins to fall ill, but there remains that one good thing on Mister and Pete's horizon: the audition that Mister is sure he's going to ace and the promise of a new life in Beverly Hills.
Though the film is, at times, as grim as its title suggests, it is never unrelentingly so. It acknowledges the horrific things that Mister and Pete are exposed to, such as Mister discovering his mother prostituting herself in the bathroom of a fast food place, the boys finding Mister's mother passed out in the living room after shooting up, and Pete's revelation of having been sexually abused by a neighbor; but the focus isn't on their suffering. Instead the film's focus is on their ability to endure the extraordinary hardships they face, to change course and adapt each time their circumstances change, and to always find some silver lining to hold on to. The situation that Mister and Pete are in is terrible, but the film also finds ways to express how a sense of freedom is mixed into the larger sense of fear that they feel. They're resourceful, as of course they would have to be, and they are able to find moments of joy - such as Mister's demonstrations of his acting ability, which largely consists of him performing wholly inappropriate monologues (such as an expletive laden imitation of Steve Buscemi from Fargo) entirely out of context - in the middle of all the chaos that surrounds them.
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is at its best when its focus is on its two title characters. The adults that surround them are largely underwritten, particularly characters played by Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Mackie, as a homeless man that Mister knows and the dealer/pimp who employs both boys' mothers, respectively, though that may be intentional since the story is told from the kids' point of view. To kids, adults can sometimes seem more like symbols than people, so in that context the thinness of the adult characters makes sense, though its a strategy that does little for the adult actors. Of them only Hudson really has the chance to make anything of her role, proving that though her Oscar win for Dreamgirls may have had as much to do with hype as with the performance, she does have a great deal of talent and can dig deep when she gets a role which allows her the opportunity. In addition to the issues with the adult characters, Mister and Pete's ending is also something of a weakness in that it seems a touch too happy to be realistic, even if on an emotional level you might argue that the characters have at least earned some semblance of a happy ending. All in all, however, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is a solid and moving film.