The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Peter turns out to be a triumph

October 11, 2013

The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister & Pete
Grade: 88
Cast: Skylan Brooks, Ethan Dizon, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Rating: R, or language, some drug use and sexual content
Running time: 108 minutes

 

Mister (Skylan Brooks) is a tough Brookly projects kid, but not too tough for his eyes to moisten when he receives an “F” that will doom him to repeat the eighth grade. After class, he seeks out his teacher, asking for a ride home and a reprieve. When he gets a lecture about how being held back might be the best thing for him, he explodes profanely and gets dropped off at the curb. And we get the feeling this cycle of disappointment and prideful rejection of offers of help is something of a pattern with him.

Mister is a strange creation, a movie kid who is more credible than cute, and a somewhat unlikely candidate for our empathy. But then we begin to know him, and by the end of this somewhat stilted and awkwardly paced but ultimately honest movie, to finally understand and even love him. And while George (Soul Food) Tillman Jr.’s The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister & Pete might be compared to any number of movies like Spike Lee’s Clockers, Lee Daniels’ Precious and Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill, I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. Though the script affords plenty of opportunities to default to sentimentality and sweet resolution, the characters seem to resist the easy and usual ways.

the-2Mister is a painfully skinny adolescent; he looks like a slightly junior version of one of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips. And he’s dogged by younger and frailer Pete (Ethan Dizon), a Korean-American boy who seems even more fragile than Mister. Their nominal caretaker is Mister’s mom, Gloria (Jennifer Hudson), a ferociously tattooed heroin addict and prostitute (she works with Pete’s mom, who we barely glimpse but seems to be even worse off). Gloria is perpetually tired, depressed, broke and on the nod, but she can usually be trusted to fish the benefits card out of her purse so that Mister and Pete can buy themselves some cheap food at a neighborhood bodega. And she’s wily — and desperate — enough to figure out how to make enough cash to pay for a restaurant meal after ordering it.

Mister and Pete are bright and sensitive kids, but they haven’t much time or energy to devote to anything but survivial. Hunger is a given in their world, as is the threat of casual violence, and at first when Gloria is picked up by the police we imagine they might be better off without her. But spending a summer in the city without any sort of “authority figure,” as Mister would call her, quickly becomes problematic. The boys have no money, and Mister’s plan to pawn items from the apartment is defeated by burglars.

Still, Mister imagines a worse fate awaits them at the notorious foster center Riverview, which he imagines as more like a prison than a school. And he has an escape plan — he’s signed up to audition for the producers of a television series that will be shot in California. If he can only make it to Aug. 7, his well-honed talent might deliver them from all from crushing poverty.

It probably ought to be said that there are some predictable elements in the film, and that the writing is not always up to the standard of the performances (which are generally outstanding). Jeffrey Wright shows up as a homeless veteran early in the film, and we keep expecting him to matter is some important way, but he never does. Similarly, Jordin Sparks has a sketchy, underwritten role as an older friend of Mister’s who seems to have escaped the projects.

But those points are mere quibbles when taken alongside the key performances of newcomer Brooks and Dizon (who’s a relative veteran, having acted in commercials since he was 2 years old) and Hudson, whose turn here is admirably understated. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Peter turns out to be a triumph.


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