Director George Tillman Jr.’s filmography includes star-studded studio projects like “Men of Honor” and “Notorious,” but you wouldn’t guess it from the ultra-sincere “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” an earnest tale of two lower class kids spending the summer on their own in the Brooklyn projects. The movie hails from a tradition of sentimental, character-driven indies largely based around the strengths of a handful of performances not typically represented in current cinema. To that end, it succeeds, and owes much to the investment of its young leads. But while it contains many earnest ingredients, “Mister and Pete” never obtains the tidy balance of its rhyming title.
It doesn’t take long to make it clear that the adolescent Mister (spectacular newcomer Skylan Brooks) lives a dreary existence. Booted from school for not doing his work and showing attitude when admonished for it, Mister heads to his grimy, crime-infested apartment complex, where his junkie mother (Jennifer Hudson in an aggressive turn) wastes her days away doing drugs and turning tricks for food. The only semblance of sincere companionship in Mister’s life comes from the oddly cheery Pete (Ethan Dizon), a neighborhood kid junior to Mister by several years but similarly adrift due to his single mother’s street antics. Early on, the police bust into Mister’s apartment to arrest his mother; afraid he’ll get shipped off to the dreaded youth detention center, Mister hides along with Peter and the two of them wind up taking over the place. When Mister’s mother fails to return, the boys find themselves in the curious position of scraping together resources to get by.
The ensuing adventure takes place over the course of a chaotic summer in which Mister masterminds attempts to keep their fridge stocked while imagining a better life. Imitating the gangster activity around the neighborhood, Mister tries his hand at thievery and eventually runs out of options. The imminently likable Brooks is a figure of tremendous sympathy, particularly once his pipe dream takes shape: A closet movie buff, Mister aspires to land a role in a Beverly Hills-set television, and even preps a monologue from “Fargo” when imagining his audition.
For the most part, however, the closest that Mister gets to an encouraging audience is the oblivious Pete and benevolent Alice (Jordin Sparks), who used to live in Mister’s building before moving up in the world. Neither of them, however, can free Mister from the immediate frustrations of his limited surroundings, a drama made palatable by Alicia Keys’ energetic score but otherwise stymied when the premise fails to go anywhere.
Instead, “Mister and Pete” unfolds as a series of vignettes, some of which are mildly touching but others that dangle helplessly in the middle of an aimless story. The main focal point in each scene is the investment that Brooks and Dizon bring to their characters, leading to a formidable chemistry that suggests an urbanized “Peanuts.” Unfortunately, Michael Starrbury’s screenplay lacks a cohesive means of channeling their conundrum into an involving dramatic arc, so that by the time the movie arrives at the apex of its dramatic incidents, they’ve been anticipated for so long that the finale comes across as an afterthought. While not without its touching moments, “Mister and Pete” is inevitably defeated by its own good intentions.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Codeblack Entertainment releases the film in a handful of theaters this weekend. Despite the handful of starry names associated with its production, “Mister and Pete” faces a tough odds, as word of mouth is likely to be divided, although its niche appeal to black audiences could help it gain some momentum at this early stage of the fall movie season.
A version of this review ran during the Sundance Film Festival. A newer cut of the film, 10 minutes shorter than the Sundance version, will be released in theaters this weekend.