'The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete': These kids are all right
"The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" features strong work by Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright, Jordin Sparks and Anthony Mackie. But they're just the supporting cast. Juvenile actors Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon outshine their older colleagues in the title roles of this moving New York-set drama about the friendship between two boys who are forced to survive on their own for several months when their mothers -- both impoverished, drug-addicted prostitutes -- are arrested.
The melodrama is laid on thick at times in a script by Michael Starrburry that's more mawkish than it needs to be. Early in the film, eighth-grader Mister (Brooks) stumbles upon his mother (Hudson) performing oral sex in the stall of a restaurant men's room, just so she can pay for their meal. Later, after her son and his younger neighbor, Pete (Dizon), have managed to elude the cops looking for them after their mothers' arrests, Pete's pet hamster dies of starvation. It's almost unbearably maudlin stuff, with references to child molestation and other abuse.
But Brooks and Dizon are genuine charmers. Under the direction of George Tillman Jr., these two young performers exercise remarkable restraint, never milking the material for unearned tears. When you cry -- and face it, you probably will -- it doesn't feel forced or unwarranted. Brooks and Dizon carry the weight of the film on their bony shoulders, with Brooks bearing the lion's share of the acting challenges.
At 13, he's a natural.
It's therefore plausible that the character he plays, Mister, dreams of Hollywood stardom. Throughout the summer that he and Pete live on their own, hiding out in his mother's squalid apartment, Mister carries an audition flier around with him, planning to attend a local casting call by a television production that he dreams will save him from his miserable existence.
"Why do you frown so much?" asks Alice (Sparks), a young woman who used to live in Mister's building and who becomes, briefly, his and Pete's benefactor. The answer may not be obvious to her, but it is to us. It's because Mister has seen things that no one should have to endure, at any age.
But the film isn't all bleak.
During a rare moment of levity, Mister entertains Pete with an impression of actor Will Smith, followed by a Steve Buscemi monologue from the movie "Fargo" that he hopes to use as his television audition. Then, without warning, Mister launches into another, less canned soliloquy, improvising a performance as his own mother.
As you might expect, that tearjerking scene is just about lethal -- not to mention Oscar-worthy.
Wright and Mackie have small parts, playing a homeless veteran and a pimp, respectively. Like all the other grown-up actors, their work is fine and tightly focused. But it's Brooks and Dizon that you're not likely to forget.
They may be tiny little kids, but they deliver outsize performances.
Three stars. Rated R. Contains obscenity, drug use, a sexual situation, brief violence and other disturbing thematic material. 108 minutes.