The Inevitable Defeat of Mister + Pete (R)
Don't let The Inevitable Defeat of Mister + Pete's catchy if cutesy rhyme of a name nor the fact that the leads are kids mislead you; the key part of the title is "inevitable defeat"--which gives one a clear picture of how gritty and decidedly un-cute George Tillman Jr.'s drama is. Michael Starrbury's script may, under the broadest of criteria, technically fall under the tried and true tradition of youth "summer that changed my life" tales. However, there hasn't been one quite as raw and real as that of Mister (Skylan Brooks) and Pete (Ethan Dizon), whose sweltering New York summer is not only a coming-of-age trial by fire, but quite literally a fight for their very survival as the pair strive to stick it out on their own after their respective mothers abandon them--physically, that is, for they have long been neglected in just about every other way for long before.
If this were a typical Hollywood treatment of such a scenario, two pre-teens being home alone would likely set up a bunch of comic misadventures (or, at its most extreme, something akin to the Macaulay Culkin starrer). However, while there are moments of humor (and Brooks and Dizon indeed display crack timing when called for it), they emerge organically from the various predicaments Mister and Pete find themselves in, for Tillman and Starrbury admirably never lose sight of the harsh reality of their unusual and most difficult living situation. This often makes for equally difficult viewing, with most of the adult cast, such as a barely recognizable Jennifer Hudson (as Mister's junkie prostitute mother) and Anthony Mackie (as a local crime boss) committing and immersing themselves completely into less than sympathetic roles (Jordin Sparks's Alice, as a kind former neighbor to Mister, is more or less the sole exception), truly leaving Mister and Pete to largely fend for themselves. But how they are able to do so against the odds and opposition, as well as form an unlikely brotherhood over the course of the months, is where the film derives its poignance and power--especially in the evolution of Mister, brought to life in what should be a star-making performance by Brooks. All bravado and big talk to match as he pins his hopes on an open call acting audition as his ticket to a new life on his own, becoming the barely elder caregiver (in all senses) to Pete gradually centers Mister on what is truly important to survive, not least of which are concrete connections with others. Brooks never hits a false note in tracing Mister's arc, rather underplaying the gradual exposure of his youthful vulnerability while still remaining emotionally vivid throughout, his general understatement making the climactic moments hit all the harder when they do come. More outwardly lighter, rather deceptively so, is Dizon's Pete; he initially strikes as one of those conventionally cute and impossibly precocious movie moppets, but whenever the chipper veneer can no longer contain the pure, naked fear and sadness, the effect is even more heartbreaking.
But while there is a fair amount of heartbreak for most of the film's run time as Mister and Pete are, as the title goes, inevitably served up defeat at practically every turn, ultimately it is outweighed by the strength and resilience the pair come to consistently display in the oppressive face of it--not only in terms of their fight for survival but in the growing bond of loyalty between them. Much like the characters' experiences, watching the film is an often wrenching emotional wringer, but ultimately one that is rewarding and unforgettable.