There’s a lot that The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete has going for it, so much that the fact that it feels like less than the sum of its parts is a disappointment. The movie has a sincere but merciless worldview, a crisp cinematographic eye, and a wonderful discovery in its two lead actors, Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon. But the script, which can’t quite mesh all of its ideas together, leaves some parts of the film listing away.
Brooks plays Mister, a preteen living in the Brooklyn projects who’s starting summer vacation with the prospect of repeating eighth grade come fall. Mister’s mother, Gloria (Jennifer Hudson) spends her days either high on heroin or prostituting herself to make ends meet. Ends aren’t meeting, though, as their ramshackle living conditions and Mister’s frighteningly thin body can attest.
As the story kicks in, things go from bad to worse. Gloria is arrested, leaving Mister without any support and having to care for Pete (Dizon), a young neighbor who comes from an even grimmer life than he does. The summer wears on, the temperature rises, the food runs out, and Gloria is released from jail but doesn’t come home, and Mister and Pete have to figure out how they’re going to survive.
Brooks is holding half this movie together all on his own. He has amazingly soulful eyes, and can break your heart with the right look. He’s subtle in a way that child actors very rarely can be, able to convey so much through body language and nuanced movement. As the title indicates, Mister is fighting a losing battle in this story, and he’s fraying apart as time goes on. He holds out hope that an audition for an acting role in a Beverly Hills-based TV show will be his ticket out, but even he recognizes the futility before the day of the audition ever arrives. Dizon is able to play against this too-young world-weariness terrifically. Pete is a symbol of purity, his innocence not yet destroyed by his environment, and Mister tries to instruct him in how to survive even as he tries to protect that innocence.
That’s this film’s picture of life for these kids: a matter of near-primal survival. In this respect, it teeters on a line between gritty social realism and cringeworthy misery porn. On the one hand are the grounded performances of Brooks and Dizon, and the details of lower-class life that feel well-observed. On the other hand are the cast of one-dimensional props who surround them. Hudson exudes despair perfectly but feels too much like she’s playing for awards attention.
Worse is Julito McCullum as a cartoonish “thug” and worse than him is a nameless store owner defined only by his Middle-Eastern ancestry and his utter callousness towards Mister’s plight. Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright, and Jordin Sparks also orbit in roles that all feel as though they could have been left out of the plot.
At times, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete has the tone of a less tragic, though no less grim, retelling of Grave of the Fireflies. But while that despairing classic committed itself to realism, this film waffles between realism and something like a fairy tale sensibility. I can see the point of characters like McCullum’s thief, Wright’s homeless vagrant, or Mackie’s drug pusher – they represent possible futures for Mister. But that’s too on-the-nose here, and it doesn’t help that their presence bloats out a running time that already feels on the long side.
At its best, the movie is emotionally rapturous, helped along by Brooks’s incredible talent. At its worst, while it avoids falling into poverty porn (to my judgment, at least), it runs into a kind of hysteria of putting children in danger. It’s a very messy film, but it’s unique and full of vitality.
*In fact, part of Sparks’s role was taken out – I’ve seen both the final cut of the film and the original cut that played Sundance. Sparks’s character exits the story in a drastically different way in the new version, one that’s completely off from where she’s clearly being led by the script, and which leaves the audience wondering why she was ever around at all.