A film like this lives and dies with its child actors, and George Tillman, Jr. found an incredibly talented leading duo for The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete.
Relative newcomers Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon take the titular roles of Mister and Pete, respectively, and their performances are two of the most memorable and powerful I’ve ever seen from such young actors.
Truly, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is a film that stays with you.
Michael Starrbury makes his feature debut here as a screenwriter, and his script is unflinching in its take on the young Mister and Pete’s struggle to survive a sweltering summer in New York City, alone in the Brooklyn projects.
From all avenues, the children have been failed. Their mothers are drug-riddled prostitutes, whose abandonment leads to their struggle to survive. The state is incapable of providing a safe environment to grow up without their parents, fostering their desire to avoid child services. And their community is rampant with crime, from which the two young boys themselves do not remain entirely innocent. Yet still, they persevere. And their perseverance, their ultimate faith in the world, is what lends this film its raw power and emotion.
The film opens with the young Mister being told that he will have to repeat the eighth grade, having got an F on his final test of the year. From there, he returns home to an absent-minded mother, whom we quickly realise is not capable of looking after her son, so strong is her drug addiction, and the concomitant prostitution that affords her what little money she has.
When someone in their neighbourhood is arrested and starts giving up names, the police soon come knocking on doors, and Mister’s mother, Gloria (Jennifer Hudson), is amongst those who get taken away.
The 14-year-old Mister is left to fend for himself and 9-year-old Pete, with the two forced to forage for food, protect themselves in a dangerous neighbourhood, and survive a long, hot summer without any adult care.
The film features terrific supporting performances from Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Jeffrey Wright, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. And interestingly, each is almost entirely unrecognisable in their roles. Mackie is seen rocking a mohawk and an awesome full beard, giving a subtle and brilliant performance looking so different to his usual appearance; Jeffrey Wright stars as a local homeless man, succumbed to a life of begging and sleeping on the streets; Jordin Sparks gives a terrific turn as an old friend of Mister who has found a way out of the projects; and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje brings to the table one of the film’s most affecting moments as the leading police character.
It is to their credit that these actors were willing to become so unrecognisable in their supporting roles. Had they been more visible, some audiences perhaps could lose focus on the powerhouse performances from the young leads, simply by virtue of the fact that Anthony Mackie’s name and face, for instance, are more recognisable than that of Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon.
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete features arguably the greatest performances from child actors so far this century. Brooks and Dizon are flawless, and their chemistry on-screen is beyond impressive. They captivate the camera like few actors their age (or many older still, for that matter) are capable of doing; never for a moment do we feel like what we are watching is anything less than reality. And the sad truth of the matter is, of course, that lives like theirs are being played out every day around the world. The film doesn’t take the easy option and try to tug on your heartstrings in a kind of rousing call to action. But it certainly leaves you thinking, recognising the importance and necessity of change.