“The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete” is nothing short of a transformative journey into young adulthood with pitfalls none of us will, one can only hope, ever face. Told beautifully with a palpable coating of grit, director George Tillman, Jr. and writer Michael Starrbury lead us into the projects in Brooklyn and then slam us to the ground.
We first meet Mister, a curiously named 13 year old, as final grades are being handed out in his English class. He has failed the course and been informed by his teacher that he will have to repeat the eighth grade. He will not be advancing to high school with his peer group. Humiliated and angry, he lashes out at his teacher when he is unable to convince him to reverse his decision. Impervious to the flattery and hardened to Mister’s torrent of abuse, Mr. Carey explains that Mister was given plenty of opportunities to receive help but instead thought he could go it alone and alone he will be when he repeats the grade.
Tracking the angry Mister from middle class Brooklyn to his housing project where drug lords rule the playground and the local whores look for a quick fix, he arrives home to find the house empty of food and his mother shooting up, she being one of the local whores. Adding insult to injury, his mother has taken in Pete, a younger boy who annoyingly follows Mister like a puppy. Resigned, Mister takes his mother’s welfare allotment card to the local bodega and finds it is overdrawn. He immediately gets into a confrontation with the South Asian owner who keeps the card and threatens to call the police. Mister brazenly takes what he wants/needs and makes an important enemy.
Worse is yet to come when, upon arriving back at the projects, the vice cops are hauling in the junkies and petty dealers, his mother among them. The children left behind will be rounded up as well and sent to a notorious group home from which no one ever seems to reemerge. Mister, newly protective of Pete, is not about to get caught and his true journey begins. They begin a long summer of hiding in plain sight away from the welfare workers and cops, trying to eke out a subsistence existence without any resources. Mister has always felt self-sufficient as the responsible adult in his family and this will be a true test of those feelings. Will he survive the summer and can he do it alone?
Tillman has given this complex history many layers. This is not a “coming of age” story in the traditional sense because there are genuine stakes involved. This isn’t about standing up to bullies or making your mother take you seriously or getting the pretty girl at school to look at you. This is a dark story of a young boy who may or may not have promise, who may not actually survive childhood. This is not your story or my story but it is definitely real and occurs far too often. It is bleak and difficult to watch, let alone live through; but it is full of characters who live and breathe. There are actual stakes here and they are stakes that no 13 year old should ever have to face.
Production values on this film are top notch considering that the budget must have been rock bottom. Cinematographer Reed Morano uses a palette that is both lyrical and gritty. As summer progresses and Mister’s situation becomes more desperate, the lighting fades and darkness prevails. His camera follows the street and the movement and gradually the viewer is drawn into Mister’s trapped existence. Original music was written for the film by Alicia Keys, also a producer on the film, and the soundtrack thumps.
“The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete” is populated by great and soon-to-be great actors. Young Skylan Brooks as Mister is a revelation. Everything hinges on him and he inhabits Mister as though he was born to it. Jennifer Hudson is all but unrecognizable as his junkie whore mother who abandons him. Her Oscar-winning performance in “Dreamgirls” was no fluke and this film proves it beyond a doubt. The masterful Jeffrey Wright, a chameleon of a performer, is all but unrecognizable as a homeless vet. His combination of pathos and hardened reality give another layer of complexity to this story of survival. There is little this actor cannot do and his mere presence on a cast list is enough to warrant a watch. Anthony Mackie portrays the neighborhood drug lord as an entrepreneur. No flashy clothes, no flashy actions, just a sardonic demeanor and steely resolve. He is no better and no worse than anyone else in the projects; he’s just smarter and Mackie makes you feel it. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje as the welfare cop reviled in the neighborhood adds to the complexity by showing us that a longer view compensates for immediate ugly actions.
Certainly the film isn’t perfect. It’s extremely difficult to watch the inevitable defeat but the ending justifies the means, despite a fundamental weakness that won’t be discussed in order not to reveal a spoiler. This was an amazing journey and one that should be taken. Revel in Skylan Brooks and revel in the life lessons that may, someday, get Mister out of the projects.
Opens Friday October 11 at the AMC Del Amo 18, the Arclight Hollywood and the Regal L.A. Live, among others. Rated R.