Writer Michael Starrbury and “Men of Honor” director George Tillman Jr.’s new film, “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” is a mostly successful, moving film about Mister, 13 (Skylan Brooks) and Pete, 9 (Ethan Dizon), who try to survive on their own in the city over a broiling New York summer. (spoilers follow)
Their goal is to do it all by themselves until August, when Mister (Skylan Brooks) can audition for a part in a movie, get hired, and earn a living.
The movie opens with Mister miserably learning he has flunked the 8th grade and will be repeating it the following year. When he gets home, he finds Pete has appeared at Mister and his mother’s apartment and isn’t leaving. Mister’s mother, Gloria (Jennifer Hudson, “Dream Girls”), a prostitute and drug addict and high much of the time, is incapable of ordering life for herself and her son and sends the two boys to get food at the convenience store so she can shoot up.
There is no money on their assistance card, which the convenience store owner takes away from Mister when the boy reacts angrily – banning him from the store entirely – and no food in the house.
After Gloria is arrested, the boys, terrified of being taken into the foster system, evade the authorities for as long as they can, even futilely seeking help from pimp-drug dealer Kris (Anthony Mackie, “The Hurt Locker”) who their mothers work for.
While Mister resourcefully finds ways to get money for food, he must dodge a bully (Julito McCullum of “The Wire”), outrun the convenience-store owner, and hide from the big, mysterious police sergeant who comes around from time to time to look for him.
It is a hard summer.
Obstacles and trials seem to loom before the boys at every turn. Despite the hardships, Mister is desperately committed to waiting for his mother to come home and to succeed at his audition, and increasingly to caring for much younger Pete and others around him. He discovers by the end of the film that no one can do everything all by themselves, and that it is neither a disgrace nor the end of the world to ask for help.
The story is sometimes funny and often sad, and for the most part unfortunately believable. Skylan Brooks, who plays Mister, has got great timing and is terrifically appealing in his role. Rarely, he appears “directed,” but for the most part, he sounds completely natural. His attempts to motivate his mother to get a job and be the parent in the house are heart-wrenchingly convincing.
Ethan Dizon, as Pete, comes off as a little more artificial a little more of the time. His diction is more than naturally clear and his mannerisms are so disarming that it is at times hard to believe that this Korean-American little kid has really grown up in the projects. The two boys have, however, a definite chemistry, and this, along with their professionalism, carries the viewer past the few dissonant moments.
The other actors deliver, too. Ms. Hudson is capable as Mister’s hapless mother; Jeffrey Wright brings his haunted, homeless vet to life. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is intimidatingly superhuman as the police sergeant whose eyes are always hidden behind his shades – and who becomes human at just the moment Mister really needs him to. Mr. Mackie, Mr. McCullum and Jordin Sparks and others play their parts with polish; their relationships with Mister are defined or delimited sharply by self-interest. Kenneth Maharaj as the on-edge store manager is persuasive as a man who responds badly to the rudeness Mister displays born of his dismay.
Music by Mark Isham, winner of numerous awards for his film composition and as a recording artist, and the well-known Alicia Keyes is hip and in tune with the movie.
This film is affecting, entertaining, and, while not perfect, is filled with heart. Mr. Starrbury has said in an interview that he wanted the possibility of hope to come through, and it does.
108 min. Rated “R.”