Young Leads Fly High In Endearing "Mister And Pete"

Writing a lead role for a child actor is one of the greatest leaps of faith that a screenwriter can take – even more daunting when the material in question is an R-rated coming-of-age yarn that attends to poverty, drug addiction, sexual abuse, and abandonment. Finding a child actor to carry such weighty subject matter while also emanating charm and sweetness would signal a minor miracle. The creative team behind “The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister And Pete” found two – 13 year-old Skylan Brooks and 10 year-old Ethan Dizon – both of whom give great life to Michael Starrbury’s inimitably warm script.

The pedigree of the picture’s director and supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at, either. George Tillman Jr. (“Soul Food,” “Men Of Honor”) directs Starrbury’s story of two youngsters left to fend for themselves throughout a sweltering summer in the inner city. We open on a public housing complex that’s crawling with police, a man taken into custody while his son is whisked away to an orphanage. Mister (Skylan Brooks), a brash, lanky eighth grader, lives in the same complex and knows that the same fate could await him.

His mother, Gloria (Jennifer Hudson), is a drug addict and prostitute, while also serving as temporary caregiver to 10 year-old Pete (Ethan Dizon), whose mother works for the same pimp (Anthony Mackie in an extended cameo). When Gloria is inevitably busted, Mister and Pete manage to hide from the arresting officers. Armed with nothing but an overdrawn welfare card, the duo must steal to eat – first from Pete’s place and then from a nearby convenience store. Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, and the boys are left to assume that Gloria is gone for good.

The vibrant cast of characters that the boys encounter – including Jeffrey Wright as a grizzled panhandler and Jordin Sparks as a former neighbor – provides the necessary narrative speed bumps, but the bulk of the film is carried by Brooks and Dizon alone. And they handle it beautifully.

Tillman wisely sees fit to give his young leads the space that the stark narrative requires – the pic uses silence in its favor – with Brooks’ performance in particular coming across as entirely unforced. Mister’s fascination with acting and cinema is very clearly the work of a writer who loves his craft, but it might have come across as hammy in the hands of a lesser actor. But Brooks is able to effortlessly sell his character’s passions and pain with crafty, understated acting and a natural expressiveness.

Dizon is relentlessly adorable as Pete, his wide-eyed innocence serving as the perfect foil to Mister’s increasing world-weariness. Although Pete is very much a sidekick, Starrbury avoids the typical pitfalls associated with such a character by giving him his own set of problems. Many screenwriters would use Pete as little more than a prop – which, admittedly happens from time to time here – but his issues serve to set off Mister’s paternal instincts, making their friendship that much more compelling.

While the film has a rock-solid foundation, some of the plot machinations are of the convenient sort. Characters frequently show up in the right (or wrong place) at the exact moment the script requires them to. Other supporting roles exist to guide our emotions within a given scene or act (Jeffrey Wright’s character is a prime example), while Tillman’s direction of the handful of narrative revelations is often overcooked. Some viewers will benefit from having their hand held (see: the reveal of two thieves’ identities), but it comes across as disingenuous in the midst of a rather sparse narrative.

But in the end, everyone involved here does so much good work that the film’s blemishes are easy to overlook. To see such a talented, experienced supporting cast (who all do fine work in the film) overshadowed by two adolescents is a treat in itself. The craftsmanship on display from the rest of the creative team is just the icing on the cake. The film will speak differently to different audiences – it can be read as social commentary, a straightforward story of survival, a movie about the nature of friendship, or all of the above – and its breadth of possible viewing angles will only make it more accessible. Ultimately, “The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister And Pete” is one of the most pleasant surprises of 2013 – and a showcase for some potential stars in the making.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 11, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Codeblack Films (Lionsgate)
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Screenwriter: Michael Starrbury
Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright, Jordin Sparks, Skylan Brooks, Ethan Dizon
MPAA Rating: R (for language, some drug use and sexual content)