Sundance '13: Great Acting Anchors 'Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete'
by Ben Pearson
January 20, 2013
When attending a film festival as large as Sundance, choosing the films you're going to watch often comes down to convenience. You fit in what you can, cross your fingers, and hope for the best, sometimes knowing almost nothing about the film you're about to see. Such was the case with my viewing of The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. All I knew was that George Tillman, Jr. - who made the terrible Dwayne Johnson movie Faster - directed it, so I wasn't exactly psyched to see it. But one of the great things about Sundance is that anything can surprise you, and not only does Tillman redeem himself here, but this movie seems destined for larger things thanks to its memorable characters and terrific performances. More below!
Mister (Skylan Brooks) is a streetwise eighth-grade student in the Brooklyn projects. His mom (Jennifer Hudson) is a junkie who works for Kris (Anthony Mackie), the area's local drug dealer, and when she's not shooting up, she's performing sexual acts on random men in restaurant bathrooms to secure the cash for her next hit. Not exactly Mother of the Year material. But Mister is a tough kid with dreams of becoming an actor, and his poor academic performances belie his talent for dramatic ones. Tasked with babysitting his younger Korean neighbor named Pete (Ethan Dizon), whose own mother has also fallen prey to the surrounding drug culture, Mister is forced to grow up more quickly than any kid should when his mom is arrested and he and Pete are left on their own. Dodging punks (Julito McCullum) and police (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and just trying to survive a hot New York summer, the two boys forge a bond and learn important lessons about loyalty, perseverance, and friendship.
I never saw Jennifer Hudson's Oscar-winning work in Dreamgirls, but she excels here as a character we're meant to despise. She totally commits herself to the seedier side of the drug-addled mom role, with the occasional flashes of darkness in her eyes being enough to forget this woman is a former reality TV show contestant. The always-entertaining Jeffrey Wright was totally unrecognizable in a small role as a homeless man who serves as a sort of projected future version of Mister's future, while Jordin Sparks (another former “American Idol” contestant) shines as a young woman with a good heart who helps out our heroes. Anthony Mackie is good too, but he barely gets enough screen time to make a real impact.
While the more recognizable names might be the main draw for a lot of people who will see this film, it's actually the performances of the two lead actors that make the movie work as well as it does. Brooks plays Mister with the skills of an actor twice his age, imbuing the character with intensity, humor, and vulnerability and making you believe Mister actually is wise beyond his years instead of being that way because he's a fictional kid in an independent movie. The adorable Ethan Dizon plays Pete, and his pure innocence adds an interesting dynamic to his relationship with the much tougher Mister.
Visually, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete looks more like an episode of “The Wire” than the over-stylized trash of Tillman's previous movie Faster, keeping a grounded approach to the cinematography and letting the actors do most of the heavy lifting. This is the first feature-length screenplay from Michael Starrbury and it's a nice piece of writing, although some abrupt tonal shifts and sequences that run a bit too long hold it back from total greatness. Overall though, this is a great collaborative effort from everyone involved, and despite the title indicating that defeat is the ultimate result, the movie is actually an uplifting story. With a head-bopping soundtrack and an inspiring underdog narrative, Mister and Pete is a film that succeeds at practically every turn, even if it isn't the most original movie at this year's festival.
Ben's Sundance Rating: 6.5 out of 10