Director George Tillman Jr. takes a step away from mainstream fodder for an examination of urban miserabalism with The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. Due to a charismatic performance from his lead child star, Tillman’s latest manages to clear a majority of the significant hurdles in the way of making the film a dramatic success, even as it recalls several other notable lost children titles, anywhere from a handful of Spike Lee titles to Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2004). Despite its well meaning intentions, some significant issues with the film cannot be overlooked, namely first time film feature scribe Michael Starrbury’s script, which throws so many maudlin scenarios at us that Precious (2009) starts to look like a glowing example of agency.
After his eighth grade teacher, Mr. Carey (Joseph Adams) confirms Mister (Skylan Brooks) will be repeating next year, a dour summer vacation has already been primed, and Mister heads home to the Brooklyn projects where a few more surprises lie in wait. One of the surprises is not finding mom Gloria (Jennifer Hudson) in a drug induced stupor, obviously catching a fix in-between finding johns. Through her haze, Gloria informs her son that he will now be in charge of looking after Pete (Ethan Dizon), their nine year old Korean neighbor whose mother has disappeared for who knows how long. At first resentful of Pete, Mister soon comes to harbor a brotherly affection for the abandoned kid when Gloria gets hauled off by the cops for peddling drugs for her pimp, Kris (Anthony Mackie), a feared drug lord of the projects.
Through a stroke of luck, Mister and Pete avoid being nabbed by child services when Gloria is arrested, and so they hole up in Mister’s apartment, waiting for Gloria to be released as they try to fend for themselves. While a cop named Pike (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbale) circles the projects indefatigably to scoop up the kids, Mister tries to get help from Alice (Jordin Sparks), an old friend who escaped the projects through her illicit affair with a moneyed, married white man. But time is fast running out as Pike relentlessly pursues the kids and a local youth, Dip Stick (Julito McCullum), who has been responsible for robbing many of the project denizens, keeps attempting to narc on the children. Meanwhile Mister desperately wants to make it to an audition calling for child actors for a television series set to shoot in Beverly Hills.
Executive produced by Alicia Keyes (who provides original music for the feature as well), The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete suffers from an overabundance of underdeveloped storylines and a running time that overextends itself during a repetitive and slow paced third act. Characters like Jordin Sparks (who finally exerts some engaging presence in a screen role), Jeffrey Wright as homeless war veteran, and an over the top store owner played by Ken Maharaj, seem meant to add depth but their dismissively handled inclusions reduce them to caricatures of convenience. And while Jennifer Hudson at last gets some more daring material, Tillman’s film is owned and operated by his two child stars, Dizon, and in particular, Skylan Brooks. Their interactions manage to transcend potential schmaltzy melodrama, such as when Pete glimpses his down and out mother on a street corner, or Mister’s valiant attempts to reach a film audition to eagerly recite his curiously chosen monologue from the movie Fargo. Mister is obviously a cinephile in the making, (he also prizes a Dan Aykroyd monologue from Trading Places), and Brooks effortlessly nails one of the film’s finest moments when he makes up his own bit assembled from the drugged up musings of his mother.
But despite these attributes, Tillman’s Mister and Pete can’t manage to escape the feeling and tone of a nicely mounted television production, one which skimps significant dramatic corners (such as the barely mentioned murder of a supporting player) and unwisely uses that time to blunt it’s final lap with too many repetitive sequences.
Reviewed on January 26 at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival – PREMIERES Programme.