Outside the theater after a recent Sundance screening of director George Tillman Jr’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, a buyer, who shall of course go unnamed, gave his final appraisal of the film to a group of friends. He declared the movie to be: “Precious-like,” “not quite the essence of the ghetto movie,” and in no way “marketable.”
Comparisons to Precious may abound with this movie and though they are lazy comparisons, they should not be wholly surprising: both films deal with the overall awful lives of young youths living in the ghetto. What the “essence” of the so-called ghetto movie actually is remains to be determined, but certainly what lies at the heart of The Inevitable Defeat… is something that transcends any genre or pseudo genre, a unique and oddly uplifting film that’s part coming-of-age, part survival story.
When we meet Mister (Skylan Brooks), he is a preteen with suffering grades, a bad attitude, but a good heart. On his last day of school he arrives home to a tiny, battered apartment in the projects to find two things: his mother strung out on heroin (played wonderfully by Jennifer Hudson), and Pete (Ethan Dizon), a 10-year-old boy sitting on his bed and using his Playstation. Pete is the son of a prostitute that Mister’s mother works for, a polite, if quiet young boy who seems to revere Mister. It might be a jarring first introduction, but for Mister, it’s a reality that he’s clearly known all his life – we see him go through the motions of anger, self pity, disgust, and finally indifference as he witnesses his mother shoot up, and later service a stranger for a couple bucks in a bathroom stall.
The film is heavy in its first ten minutes, and it gets even heavier when Mister’s mom is arrested, leaving him to fend for himself and little Pete for three hot summer months as they evade the police and placement in a local orphanage while trying to stave off hunger and sickness. While the film does at times go too far in the extremes of tragedy and misfortune – literally anything bad that can happen to these little boys will – it never devolves totally into what some would describe as poverty porn.
It’s a testament to the script by Michael Starburry and stellar acting by the cast (including Anthony Mackie and Jordin Sparks) that the movie doesn’t come across as voyeuristic, a touristy excursion into a bizarre and grotesque world. But the true essence of the film lies in its two leads, particularly Skylan Brooks, who carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders with a charisma and a vulnerability that’s rare for both child and adult actors alike. We root for him not because we feel sorry for him, but rather because he constantly fights against the urge to feel sorry for himself, with big dreams of becoming an actor and auditioning for a Beverly Hills television show that he hopes will change his life.
The inevitability of the film’s title is, well, inevitable, but the journey that we go on with Mister and Pete suggests that, in a certain sense, they lose a battle but win an even bigger war at the end. There’s a moment in the film when the police chief (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who has been pursuing him all summer tells Mister to keep fighting, no matter what. He replies, tearfully: “But I can’t do it on my own.” It’s this sentiment, really, that drives the film – a child realizing that, no despite circumstances that force him to be strong, it’s okay for him to still want to be a kid. It’s okay to ask for help. This, perhaps, may not be a marketable sentiment – but it’s certainly a refreshing one.