Film Review: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete

There very well may not be a more moving, honest film this year.

The Brooklyn projects make you tough, and Mister (Skylan Brooks) is one hard-ass kid. Having just discovered that he is flunking eighth grade, matters are worsened when he sees some nasty bathroom graffiti concerning his mother, Gloria (Jennifer Hudson). She's a junkie who earns money with her body, and now their apartment has been invaded by Pete (Ethan Dizon), the nine-year-old son of a friend in a similar situation to Gloria.

When Gloria is arrested and hauled off, Mister finds himself in charge of Pete, and the unlikely pair spend a wild summer, using any means necessary to keep food in their bellies, all the while hiding from juvenile authorities who'd throw them both into a youth residence notorious for its supposed record of abused and/or dead kids. Through it all, Mister hangs on to his dreams of movie stardom in a mythic Beverly Hills, honing his impressions from beloved films like Fargo and Trading Places for an upcoming open casting call for a film.

In their depiction of the hardscrabble existence of these underprivileged children, laced with mordant street humor, director George Tillman, Jr. and screenwriter Michael Starrbury achieve a gritty authenticity and molten poignancy which recall nothing less than Vittorio De Sica's similar, magical studies of kids in poverty like Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves. (The crucial difference here is that the Italy which De Sica revealed was struggling with the devastating economic and spiritual hangover of World War II, but what like excuse can our country today offer?) Tillman and Starrbury obviously know this particular turf well and there's not a phony moment in the film, as they present a positively Dickensian gallery of ghetto rogues, which include Mister's particular nemesis, a nappy-haired local snitch of a bully (Julito McCullum, best movie villain of the year); the intimidating local pimp (Anthony Mackie) for whom the boys' mothers work; an irate Indian deli owner (Ken Maharaj); and a scary hag of a neighbor from whose pedophile clutches Mister rescues Pete.

These characters make up the roiling atmosphere of Mister's project, regularly pierced by the wailing of police sirens as yet another bust goes down. Tillman and his alert cinematographer Reed Morano also find moments of almost idyllic, tranquil beauty amidst the grit: men peacefully playing chess outside; the bits of nature's greenery urban planning has allowed; the lovely, round, open face of Alice (a very warm and appealing Jordin Sparks), a friend of Mister who tries to help him, despite his viciously unyielding pride.

The pairing of Mister and Pete, who is Korean, is a felicitous nod toward the often strained, traditional relationship between their races. And, through all the seeming hopelessness, there are random bits of happy surprise—showing how some of the understandable childlike terror Mister feels is often self-created—like the advice Mister receives from a feared cop (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbale) who apprehends him, which reminded me of Lloyd Nolan's scenes with Peggy Ann Garner in that other Brooklyn-set study of hard-pressed children, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has been a classic book in inner-city schools.

Without being nearly as much of a Gothic urban horror show as Lee Daniels' Precious, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete has moments which surpass that film in terms of genuine, heart-stopping emotion: a gun terrifyingly going off by accident; Pete's crying breakdown in the car when he humiliatingly spots his mother on the street; the moment when Mister finally gets over himself and reveals his unspoken love for Alice; his first day in eighth grade for the second time, and, especially, in the performance of Jennifer Hudson. As Dreamgirls proved, this formidable singer—like so many great singers—is also a natural actress and she flaunts some very impressive tragic dimension here, whether semiconsciously trying to babysit the boys or making a john in a restaurant so she can pay for a meal, and there will simply not be a more moving cinematic moment this year than her eventual reunion with her son.

Dizon is adorably winning with his prim, excessive good manners so at odds with his roughhouse, often profane surroundings. At times, he evokes Brandon DeWilde's unforgettable, fey John Henry in The Member of the Wedding, and the scene in which Mister asks him "Are you my nigga, Pete?" is hilarious, classic.  But the film really belongs to Brooks. He's in nearly every scene and carries the movie magnificently on his scrawny shoulders. Off-puttingly hostile at the beginning, he never tries to wink out of character and steal into your heart, but nevertheless does so gradually and completely, his hard, hostile little face eventually softening into poetic, sculptural beauty as he comes to finally realize that he simply cannot do it alone.