The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete: Sundance Review

Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon
A well-intentioned but dramatically undernourished story of two neglected inner-city boys who find comfort in each other from a harsh environment.

Jennifer Hudson and Jordin Sparks appear in George Tillman Jr.'s film about two young kids forced to fend for themselves in a tough Brooklyn housing project.

PARK CITY – The no-win contest in the title of George Tillman Jr.’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete points to the tough reality of life among the drugs and guns of the Brooklyn projects as the insurmountable challenge faced by two kids forced to fend for themselves one summer. But the real defeat in this ambling fairy tale of hardship, abandonment and resilience is that two potentially winning central characters -- and the tender young actors who play them -- are let down by a programmed screenplay that’s short on narrative muscle.

Scripted by Michael Starrbury, the film’s gritty surfaces and unsparing depiction of children exposed to crime and squalor will possibly invite comparison to Lee DanielsPrecious. But while the early scenes lay promising foundations, earnest sentiment gradually takes over. The presence of not one but two American Idol alumnae, Jennifer Hudson and Jordin Sparks, as women put through the grinder of inner-city life, might bolster commercial prospects, though this looks more likely to find a receptive audience on cable.

PHOTOS: The Scene in Park City

Returning home distraught after learning he’s flunking eighth grade, Mister (Skylan Brooks) finds his mother Gloria (Hudson) in a doped-up haze. He’s left to babysit a nine-year-old Korean kid, Pete (Ethan Dizon), whose mother is also a junkie. Having seen neighbors’ children hauled off by protective services to a grim-sounding local shelter, Mister goes into independent survival mode when Gloria is arrested for prostitution and drug use. Sullenly at first, and then with increasing big-brother commitment, he takes Pete under his wing.

With a cop (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbale) circling the projects determined to deliver him to authorities, and a sneering youth (Julito McCullum) from the block eager to snitch on him, Mister needs to be resourceful to stay in hiding. A local merchant (Ken Maharaj) bans him from the grocery store, and his mother’s pimp and drug dealer (an extravagantly bearded Anthony Mackie) admires the kid’s pluck but keeps his distance.

However, the big problem here is that not much happens in the protracted midsection. Tillman and Starrbury fail to instill dramatic forward motion, so the film idles for much of its running time, relying on the not inconsiderable charms of young actors Brooks and Dizon. Their odd-couple dynamic is nicely played, with Brooks’ Mister begrudgingly showing a nurturing side beneath his tough-guy posturing, and Dizon’s Pete tagging along in timid gratitude, with humor milked out of his unfailing politeness. Pete’s tearful mortification when they pass his messed-up mother on a street corner is heart-wrenching.

Mister’s vulnerability and longing for a cleaner, more stable life surfaces when he re-encounters Alice (Sparks), a young woman who found a ticket out of the projects with a wealthy, white married lover. There’s warmth and gentleness in scenes where she does what she can to help the boys.

VIDEO: THR's Sundance 2013 Diaries           

A more poetic though skimpily developed strand involves Mister’s dream of landing a role on a TV series to shoot in Beverly Hills. The audition date gives the kids a goal to aim for as they endure the summer heat with whatever food they can rustle up in an apartment that becomes sweltering once the utilities have been cut off. Mister is a movie buff, at one point reciting an amusingly incongruous snatch of dialogue from Fargo; one of the most poignant moments has him performing a monologue shaped from his mother’s strung-out ramblings.

In addition to its episodic structure, Starrbury’s screenplay suffers from occasional heavy-handedness, notably in the fate of Alice, or when it’s revealed that Pete’s neighbor is a witchy female child molester. And given how formulaic much of this material is, the drama’s resolution is unsatisfying, giving Mister a reprieve but leaving Pete’s fate up in the air. Still, this is a touching portrayal of friendship and loyalty between kids thrust together by unhappy circumstances.

The names in the supporting cast appear to be on hand primarily to lend support to a project with obvious social commitment. Mackie, Akinnuoye-Agbale (Lost) and Jeffrey Wright as a homeless ex-Marine all have little to do. Sparks is fine in a role of limited scope. A deglamorized Hudson displays dramatic chops that have been underused since Dreamgirls, landing some moving moments. But this is very much Brooks’, and to a lesser extent Dizon’s picture.

PHOTOS: Sundance 2013: The Premieres

Working with cinematographer Reed Morano, Tillman applies a slick visual sheen, bringing vivid textures to the tough neighborhood, the bleak public-housing corridors and shabby apartments. The director perhaps attempts to address pacing issues by layering a mix of hip-hop tracks with original scoring by executive producer Alicia Keys and Mark Isham. But at close to two hours, the film cries out for greater economy and focus in its storytelling.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbale, Skylan Brooks, Ethan Dizon, Julito McCullum, Ken Maharaj

Production company: Ideal Partners, State Street, Unified Pictures

Director: George Tillman, Jr.

Screenwriter: Michael Starrbury

Producers: Jana Edelbaum, Rachel Cohen, Bob Teitel

Executive producers: Alicia Keys, Susan Lewis, Clay Floren, Aimee Shieh, Julio DePietro, Keith Kjarval, Mary Vernieu, Amy Nauiokas

Director of photography: Reed Morano

Production designer: Jane Musky

Music: Alicia Keys, Mark Isham

Costume designer: Charlese Antoinette Jones

Editor: Jamie Kirkpatrick

No rating, 118 minutes.