The Potluck Film Festival has, so far, included a few of the most grimly conceived and sensibility-violating movies ever produced, such as SALÒ, MARTYRS and THE WOMAN — and Gaspar Noe's notorious rape-revenge drama Irreversible is waiting for me during this upcoming holiday season. With less extreme competition, perhaps The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete would be in surprising contention for the most harrowing and/or depressing movie of the year. Although George Tillman, Jr.'s projects-based drama has a title and poster that suggest a feel-good inspirational family drama, its hints of hope are meagre and, given the real-life horrors which are suggested within, unpersuasive, despite the movie's confused presentation.
Skylan Brooks gives a fairly astounding child performance as Mister, an imminently adolescent boy whose future is precariously slipping through the fingers of his undependable single mother (Jennifer Hudson), who is both a junkie and a prostitute. With Pete (Ethan Dizon) — a young neighbor whose home life is even less secure — Mister navigates both the rough adult world of Brooklyn's crime infested low-income housing and his burning, indignant anger at everyone to survive from day to day.
In terms of its subject matter, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, is a relentless downer. Mister's childhood of neglect and squalor certainly nods to the sad experience of many kids in real life, which is profoundly heartbreaking to consider. Tillman films it capably, but not exceptionally, caught between the gritty realism that the story perhaps deserves and the Afterschool Special-level sentimentality that might make it palatable to the least demanding viewers. Reed Morano's attractive but generic cinematography gives this Brooklyn slum the clean, polished and sun-dappled look of an urban romantic comedy — you've never seen a junkie's apartment look so tidy — while Michael Starrbury's script goes to very dark places. Whether it's out of poor conception or commercial compromise, this conflict in tone — as well as the inevitable sense that the titular series of defeats may only be temporary — neuters the film from fully relating the severity of this crisis, rather than merely poking around its edges.
The one asset to truly treasure in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is Brooks, who looks here like a major star in the making, despite being only 14 at the time of the film's release. Although Tillman sometimes steps too hard on the emotional gas pedal, Brooks is an uncannily subtle, internal performer who seems to know that showing as little as possible can carry the most impact. It's a bright, sometimes charming, often simmering, and always layered performance, and with one moment that should not have seemed so effortlessly heartbreaking from such a young talent.
Brooks aside, the rest of the cast wavers between solid to merely adequate, reflecting Tillman's indistinct command of the material. Hudson is good enough in a showy role, Jeffrey Wright gets to dress up like a homeless veteran, Jordin Sparks is present, and Anthony Mackie is wearing an oddly fake-looking beard.
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Ty Tag. It ranks on his Flickchart at #34 / 2804 (99%), where it's his favorite out of 20 Childhood Dramas. It ranked on my Flickchart at #1943 (50%), making it my 32nd favorite Childhood Drama out of 39.