Every once and awhile, there’s a film that you’ve never heard of that blows you away. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete is one of those films. Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Mackie, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Jordin Sparks headline this Lionsgate drama that tracks one summer in the lives of Mister (Skylan Brooks) and Pete (Ethan Dizon), two young tweens who find themselves orphaned by their parents’ decisions and the system’s negligence in New York City. Sure, you’ve heard of the those first five actors and actresses, but it’s these two first-time movie stars who steal the show.
Drug use, prostitution, child abuse and neglect, and violence are major players in this inner city drama. It’s a life that’s too serious, too complex, and too tragic to be dumped on two thirteen-year-olds, but those are the facts as they’re presented here. The world that Mister inhabits involves failing the eighth grade, a mother who’s too high to actually pay the bills, and a intellect-mixed-with-sass that gets him in more trouble than it helps him out. But all of this makes him a compelling character for the film, and begs that we see with our own eyes what the world would look like from his perspective.
To be clear, there are lots of victims here, but not as many ‘villains’. Mister’s mother (Hudson) longs to be a success, but prostitution is the only way she knows to move forward, to pay the bills and buy herself drugs. Mister cusses out a teacher who is trying to help him, but that’s the way he’s been taught to speak by his surroundings, and rejection has to be met with bravado and verbal violence. The cops aren’t overtly abusive, but doing their job means that they break-up families, and ‘orphan’ kids. An adult friend of Mister’s who escaped the ghetto (in a variation of his mother?), Alice (Sparks), gives him gifts but never really lifts him out of his environment, effectively being ineffective. The closest thing to an out-and-out ‘bad guy’ is Dipstick (Julitto McCullum), who steals the kids’ stuff and wants them to end up busted by the Housing Authority.
To read that laundry list of problems is to see the abject tragedy of the film, but director George Tillman, Jr. (Notorious, Men of Honor, Soul Food) mixes in a fair amount of humor and irony. Mister can quote whole monologues from the Eddie Murphy/Dan Ackroyd comedy Trading Places and his lessons to Pete about being tough, not snitching, etc. have a way of ironically needing to be clarified or flipped, and Pete’s naiveté begs for our acknowledgment that regardless of what they face, these are still kids. Mister’s improvised impersonations are their own mini-show within the show!
Mister’s pursuit of an acting job mirrors his battle between being tough and fake, or actually being the gold-hearted kid he is. “You don’t act like the character, you are the character,” advises one of his favorite books. He’s learning that who he acts like helps define who he is, and that in caring for Pete, he’s slowly morphing from immature, angry kid into sufficient, established adult.
Along the way, both boys have to learn how to trust, and who to love. Ultimately, under Mister’s tutelage, we hear that we have to love everyone (even the moms who leave them homeless) but we don’t have to like how they treat us or how they behave. Establishing themselves for who they are and not who they aren’t is a big step here- and it’s a big step for all of us if we’re going to be realistic. Too often, we are defined in terms of what we’re not, instead of figuring out who we are and pursuing that sentiment with every passion we have.
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete is tough to watch at times, but the payoff from watching these kids rise above their situations to do more than survive, but to thrive, is impressive.