"The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete" is a moving bit of mischief and mayhem that will break your heart, give you hope, make you laugh, possibly cry.
Set in the Brooklyn projects a few years after the economic slide of 2008, it follows the saga of a 14-year-old named Mister (Skylan Brooks) and his unwanted sidekick, Pete (Ethan Dizon), as they try to survive their mothers' failings, the cops' sweeps and all manner of evil that lurks around a poverty-ridden high-rise. This is the real Hunger Games, where an empty stomach is a given and it's a race to see whether dreams or tenants die faster.
It is an imperfect film about this imperfect world. But if "Mister & Pete" doesn't make you rethink the social safety net that fails these kids, and so many others like them, book some time with a cardiologist. The performances are fierce and funny, moving without being maudlin, with Brooks so winning as the tough, resourceful Mister that he sets the tone for the entire film. In fact, he steals it.
In the wrong hands, "The Inevitable Defeat" might have been undone by the melodrama made possible by boys left on their own by single mothers who pimp to put food on the table and do drugs to forget the degradation.
But director George Tillman Jr. uses a great deal of restraint, allowing the script, co-written with Michael Starrbury, to make its points with more subtlety. The jabs at social shortfalls are sly. The idea of a Hollywood ending cooked up by Mister is genius.
In all of it, Mister and Pete are the film's secret weapon, richly drawn characters so well acted that they go a long way to overshadow its failings. Dizon's deadpan Pete is priceless.
Though the story — and the summer in which it takes place — is book-ended by Mister's trials in the classroom, its central playing field is home, a rundown apartment decorated in varying shades of disappointment.
The biggest is Mister's mom, Gloria (Jennifer Hudson). It is clear she loves him, but she's made and broken too many promises. A scene Mister witnesses in a dirty diner restroom makes her desperation clear. And now Pete, a few years younger than Mister, has somehow latched onto this sinking ship.
We've barely had a chance to size Gloria up when she's gone — caught in a police sweep. Before too many days, Mister realizes he and Pete are on their own. Their days take on an urban Peter Pan cast as they forage for food and try to avoid getting captured by various authority figures. The local shopkeeper (Kenneth Maharaj), one particularly ominous cop (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and an aspiring tough named Dip Stick (Julito McCullum) are the prime subjects to be avoided.
Despite all the difficulties, Mister is a dreamer. All of his hopes ride on an audition for a TV role. Mister has made a study of actors in his short life, becoming a master at turning himself into Will Smith, or more tellingly, Eddie Murphy in "Trading Places." It makes for some of the funniest, and saddest, moments.
Mister's irrepressible moxie and that Hollywood ending are the two main forces driving the action. Almost every encounter the boys have becomes yet another test. Do they believe Henry (Jeffrey Wright) the homeless vet panhandling on the corner? Should they trust Alice (Jordin Sparks), the girl who escaped the projects? And on it goes.
Tillman, who initially made his writing-directing mark with the 1997 Afro-centric cultural comedy, "Soul Food," before going on to produce the hit "Barbershop" and direct films like "Men of Honor," has a very specific way of doing "street." Along with the grime, there is always a good dose of humanity in even the worst of the lot.
There's always a silver lining, as well — in this case too much a cliché. But the message in "Mister" is not about the falls but how to survive them. And that "The Inevitable Defeat" most certainly does.
MPAA rating: R for language, some drug use and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In select theaters
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