As I think back on The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, I begin to notice all of its storytelling contrivances, its emotional manipulation and its underdeveloped supporting characters. However, it's worth noting that I never really considered these things while I was watching the film, because I was firmly in the grip of the story writer Michael Starrbury and director George Tillman, Jr. were telling. The movie's flaws are easier to recognize in retrospect, but I'll admit that there were moments when I convinced myself that I was watching a potent fusion of Stand By Me and The Wire. That's because there are strong moments of truth in the film, and those moments are often powerful enough to obscure the artifice Tillman uses to fill in the gaps.
Mister (Skylan Brooks, Seven Pounds) is a 14-year-old African-American kid living in Brooklyn. He's just learned that he failed the eighth grade, and will be required to repeat his classes next year. His mother (Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls) is a drug addict and a prostitute, and is unable to adequately care for him as a result. Mister's daily life is more challenging than it ought to be, and it's made him angry at the world. He lashes out at his teachers, at his peers, at his mother, at anyone who manages to push one of his buttons. As a result, he finds himself without many allies. His only friend is Pete (Ethan Dizon, Bad Words), a quiet, friendly 9-year-old Korean boy who's also being raised by an inattentive junkie. When Mister's mom disappears without explanation and Pete's mother starts spinning out of control, the two boys are forced to survive on their own while attempting to steer clear of authority figures that might place them in protective custody.
When the film focuses on its two young characters, it thrives. Mister is particularly well-drawn, and Brooks delivers a performance filled with wounded fury. He dreams of becoming an actor, and counts down the days to a big audition for a part in a television series. His personal mantra is a monologue from the Dan Aykroyd/Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places, which begins with the line, “Think big, think positive, never show any sign of weakness.” Mister isn't a happy kid, but he never loses sight of his ferocious optimism. He will make it to that audition. He will be a television star. His mother will return. He and Pete will be okay. Anyone who says otherwise gets a middle finger and a dirty look. Pete isn't as open with his feelings, but after a while it becomes clear that his pleasant demeanor masks a host of horrible secrets. Perhaps sensing that they share some of the same unspeakable pain, Mister treats him as a younger brother.
The further the film drifts from its title characters, the less it works. Most of the adults in the movie feel like thinly-sketched plot devices. The great Jeffrey Wright (Ride with the Devil) is wasted as a homeless drunk, a character who mumbles his way through a couple of forgettable scenes and then vanishes. Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) essays a stereotypical pimp/drug dealer, while Jordin Sparks (Left Behind) struggles to do much with the role of a friendly prostitute. Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje (Thor: The Dark World) plays the neighborhood cop who's always trying to catch Mister, but he's more of a threatening object than a character. Hudson does strong, memorable work in her handful of scenes, but her early disappearance means that she's absent for the bulk of the movie.
It could also be argued that The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete cheats on its title, which initially feels like a grim, frank promise but eventually turns into something a bit more precious. I'm certainly not saying that I wanted to see bad things happen to these kids – on the contrary, I grew to love them rather quickly – but the film's ending is weak tea. After spending so much time offering a truthful portrait of what Mister and Pete have been forced to endure, it's disheartening to see the film succumb to dishonest (if warm-hearted) fantasy in its closing moments. What had been a gripping portrait of harsh reality has suddenly transformed into a sentimental fable.
Despite this, the movie is worth seeing. It may not live up to its full potential, but nonetheless offers a vivid examination of the sort of young people often ignored by both society and cinema. There are many indelible moments, from Mister's profanity-laden re-enactment of a scene from Fargo (“It's a hilarious movie about people from Minnesota with funny accents”) to a heartbreaking early moment in a diner to a powerful scene of confrontation with an abusive adult. The relationship between Mister and Pete is genuine and moving, as is the relationship between Mister and his mother. He despises her for what she's done, yet can't help but love her for who she is. To quote an Otis Redding tune featured on the soundtrack: “I've been loving you too long to stop now.”
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2013