The achingly sincere coming-of-age drama The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister & Pete opens with its protagonist, Mister (impressive newcomer Skylan Brooks), receiving an “F” on a school paper that will doom him to repeat eighth grade. Mister responds first with tears, then the profane anger that is his default response to the world’s never-ending frustrations—but his life only gets worse from there on out. For Mister, thoughts of academic success, much less a college education, come second to the all-out quest for survival that consumes most of his existence.
Like addiction, the survival struggle simplifies life in the most awful manner imaginable, reducing a world spinning with variables and complexities into a single-minded quest to avoid oblivion. For the emaciated, big-eyed Mister, the threat of starvation is terrifyingly literal: He’s so skinny, he’s only a few missed meals away from dissipating into vapor, and he’s clearly missed more meals than he’s eaten over the course of his hardscrabble existence.
The son of heroin-addicted prostitute mother Gloria (a tatted-up Jennifer Hudson, radiating world-weary exhaustion) and an absent father, Mister lives in an apartment in the Brooklyn projects, inhabiting a world devoid of security and comfort. Mister has been raising himself and supporting his mother, while serving as a surrogate older brother/father figure to Pete (Ethan Dizon), a scrawny Asian-American boy who follows him around like a lost puppy, and seems to be even more desperate and lost.
Mister and Pete just barely survive while Gloria perpetually slumps in a heroin-induced haze, when she isn’t out servicing clients. When Gloria is arrested, it’s terrifying, but also strangely liberating. If nothing else, it frees Mister from being confronted with his mother’s addiction, depression, and hopelessness on a constant basis. The terrifying uncertainty of this new situation is somehow preferable to the predictable despair of life with a mother in a steep downward spiral.
At its best, The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister & Pete recalls Steven Soderbergh’s wonderful period drama King Of The Hill, another look at poverty and the hunt for survival told from the perspective of a resourceful but luckless young man. Mister dreams of being an actor, and treats the challenge of having to provide for himself partially as an extended game of improvisation. He has to keep it up until he gets to an audition he’s convinced will free him from misery and give him a new life as a professional child actor in Beverly Hills.
The film’s most powerful moments recast the familiar in a fascinating new light by showing what the world looks like to a boy who has known only hunger. When seen through Mister and Pete’s admiring, hungry eyes, for example, an ordinary supermarket becomes a decadent palace of sensual wonder and unimaginable riches. And the films Mister obsessively watches and re-watches to help him prepare for his future career as an actor, like Fargo and Trading Places, similarly feel newly exotic and strange when seen from the perspective of a young man who knows all the words and rhythms and cadences, even if the films seem to come from a much different, more ridiculous, and altogether more benevolent universe than his own.
The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister & Pete is on sure footing when it focuses on the sorrowful plight of its protagonists, particularly Brooks, who delivers a performance rich in anger, sadness, and confusion, but devoid of sentimentality. But the film is shakier when it comes to supporting characters who flit in and out of Mister’s life without making much of an impact, like Alice (Jordin Sparks), an older friend of Mister’s in a kept relationship with an older man, or an underwritten homeless man played by Jeffrey Wright, whose scenes seemed to have ended up on the cutting-room floor.
But even though the grubby street melodrama on the periphery sometimes rings false, and the filmmakers sometime overreach, the film’s core feels true. The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister & Pete is a raw, often moving coming-of-age story about an impressive yet overmatched youngster who might grow up and do great things—if he can only survive the trauma of being rootless, desperate, and 13.