January 30, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ SUNDANCE 2013: “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete”


Toy’s House wasn’t the only movie at this year’s Sundance about boys fending for themselves.  THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE depicts a less voluntary version of the effort to keep going without adults, set in a much more hostile environment.  George Tillman Jr’s film, written by Michael Starrbury, is set in a Brooklyn housing project, where the smart but struggling African-American Mister (not a nickname, and played by the very gifted young actor Skylan Brooks) and his younger, shyer Korean-American companion Pete (Ethan Dizon) share the sad bond of being sons of drug-addicted prostitutes who work for the local pimp and pusher Kris (Anthony Mackie); Mister’s mother Gloria (Jennifer Hudson), in marginally better shape than Pete’s, sometimes takes care of the younger boy as well, although “takes care of” really means Mister is reluctantly responsible for his surrogate brother.

One day, Gloria is arrested, and although freed on bail, she doesn’t come back.  Mister is desperate not to be shipped off to the local group home, and he and Pete hide from the cops.  After that, they spend a long, hot summer trying to keep food in the refrigerator, and for that matter keep the electricity for the refrigerator on, without letting any of the adults around them know what’s really happening.

As long as Mister and Pete concentrates on its title characters, it’s a strong, moving story.  The growing relationship between the two boys is powerful, and the script even gets away with the conceit that Mister, a surprisingly sophisticated film buff (he’s memorized passages from Fargo) is determined to land a part on a TV pilot for a show set in Beverly Hills.  The scene of his audition is one of the movie’s most piercing.

Where the film gets into trouble is with its adult characters and their interaction with the boys.  Gloria is a hackneyed version of a heroin-addicted prostitute, and although Hudson works very hard to make the story’s too-neat ending work, and Tillman shoots the scene with as much restraint as possible, they can’t bring it off.  Another character, Alice (Jordin Sparks), a former neighbor who escaped the projects thanks to a relationship with a wealthy man, but who still has fondness for Mister, never really makes any sense, and her fate is so melodramatic that it spins the whole movie off its axis (it’s like a twist out of Precious).  There’s an inexplicably mean-spirited storeowner (Ken Maharaj) who appears to literally have the only shop selling food anywhere near the projects, a housing cop (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbale) whose menace is the set-up for a climactic reveal, and a sentimentally-drawn homeless veteran (Jeffrey Wright).  Another pop-eyed denizen of the project seems like a background character pulled from a Spike Lee movie.  Mackie, as the pimp, is the only one who suggests layers below his stock figure, flickers of compassion and shrewdness showing through his massive beard.

Tillman is an experienced Hollywood director, with pictures like Soul Food, Men of Honor, Notorious and Faster to his credit, so Inevitable Defeat is much slicker than the usual Sundance drama, with confident photography by Reed Morano (her work includes Frozen River and Little Birds), and a score by Mark Isham and the film’s executive producer Alicia Keys.

The defeat of Inevitable Defeat wasn’t inevitable, but the movie never quite finds its path, mixing incisive, emotional moments with an assortment that are obvious and contrived.  As a whole, the film is earnest and well-intentioned yet never cohesive.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."