“The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” opens with a compression of plight so packed it might set a record. When we first meet Mister (Skylan Brooks), a 14-year-old boy living with his drug-addled mother (Jennifer Hudson) in a squalid apartment, he’s flunked out of eight grade, been denied groceries on his mom’s welfare card, and had to confront her desperate prostitution done in order to pay for their next meal. These events unfold back-to-back with a convincing depiction of their clichéd truths. But what “Notorious” director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Michael Starrbury paint as compelling context for their ensuing tale of two ambitious kids—stranded in New York over a scorching summer—reads instead as a meandering emotional barrage of hardship, however deepened by a pair of lively performances at its core.
In the film, Tillman Jr. carves out a corner of New York’s lower class, largely black neighborhoods, and infuses it with a tone shifting constantly from poetic fable into gritty realism and back again. As Mister glides around his apartment block on a skateboard, he surveys the community’s key personalities, tagged with recognizable trait—the stark-eyed loiterer counting his cash; Afro’ed bully obsessed with Fun Dip candy; or wizard-bearded pimp Kris (Anthony Mackie) with a local grip of influence.
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Mister’s world is broken down into easily definable terms, primarily in his goal to score an acting audition for a TV show shooting in Los Angeles. But when his mother is suddenly arrested and taken away by a towering mass of a police officer (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, under intimidating aviator shades), he’s tasked instead with babysitting a younger, complicated child: Pete (Ethan Dizon), a similarly abandoned Asian-American boy from down the hall.
The boys’ isolation is not cause for celebration: stuck in a bare apartment without food and fearing police returning to take them, Mister and Pete quickly click into survival mode as they try to locate their families once more. Tillman Jr. approaches these scenes with the kids’ slight disconnect from their circumstances, and lead actors Brooks and Dizon help him along tremendously. Both mostly evade the cloying traps of their profession while still maintaining an extroverted glow, while Brooks—whose character struggles with the role of parental figure to both Pete and his mother—especially conveys the moments of vulnerability in a child forced to grow up incredibly fast.
On paper, the pressing factors of hunger and outside threat should hook the viewer into Mister and Pete’s constant condition, but in the film’s connected incidents lack a gripping thematic throughline even as they clearly skip from one to the next. “I do what I do ‘cos ain’t nobody gonna help me—they never have, they never will,” explains Hudson’s character Gloria in one scene. The primary journey of the film is Mister’s rejection of his mother’s self-pitying path—away from stubborn independence and toward a friendly hand. And indeed, the most affecting and substantive moments of the narrative come from his attempts at reaching out, especially to see the result when a manipulative character sits at the other end. But these instances are brief, untethered gems in an otherwise over-plotted web of Starburry’s design.
Equally as tangled is the film’s relationship to pop culture; it frequently utilizes scenes from “Trading Places” and “Fargo” as Mister singles out monologues from each and acts alongside them. The Coen Brothers’ comedy-drama plays a particularly large part; Mister memorizes Steve Buscemi‘s parking lot monologue for use in his audition, and he’s given a DVD of the film by his crush Alice (Jordin Sparks). Yet for all of the affection given to it by Mister, the film never makes us truly believe that’s the case. Its soundtrack is another matter: Alicia Keys provides a frequently stirring score with composer Mark Isham that lights up the picture, and emphatically finds the pocket of tragic optimism that Tillman Jr. attempts to locate elsewhere.
The other notable singer-songwriter in the film besides Sparks, whose Alice convincingly cracks Mister’s tough-guy façade, Jennifer Hudson gives an impassioned performance that makes its impact quick and lingers over the rest of the story. While somewhat heavy-handed elsewhere, Tillman Jr. nonetheless frames a subtly heartbreaking scene with Hudson on a bus, where Gloria—experiencing both heroin withdrawals and a public shaming after hitting her child—quietly clutches Mister as she quietly writhes in her seat, battling between needing a fix and being a decent parent. Less effective is actor Jeffrey Wright, showing up early on as a homeless veteran, who tries to imbue his three scenes with much more of a symbolic force than the role can muster for him.
The details of the film move more than its overhead view conveys; Tillman Jr. shoots his environments with a roving eye for lived-in behaviors and history, and the project never feels anything less than personal for the filmmakers and cast. But with the task of covering a summer tinged with danger throughout, the film becomes saddled with a tedious jeopardy, like watching a runaway train slowed to a crawl and directed at our two protagonists in its path. A wonderful document of inner-city oppression and two young actors’ beginning steps, “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” struggles to establish a cohesive center, and ultimately fumbles any tension on the path toward its title’s possible fate. [C]