The very first film I saw at this year’s fest, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete by George Tillman Jr. (Faster, NotoriousSoul Food), is about a pair of children fending for themselves in a Brooklyn Housing project after being abandoned by their drug addicted mothers.  The Sundance Film Festival often features movies about adolescents and teenagers coming of age, and this year is certainly no exception.  Maybe it’s because that time of life brings self realization or actualization, which speaks to the overall theme of individual voices the festival strives to celebrate.  Maybe it’s because independent filmmakers have lots of childhood and family issues they need to work out in their art.  Who knows.  Check out the rest of the review after the jump…

The Players

  • Director:  George Tillman Jr
  • Writer:  Michael Starrbury
  • Cast:  Skylan Brooks, Ethan Dizon, Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Mackie, Jordin Sparks, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
  • Cinematographer: Reed Morano
  • Original Music: Alicia Keys, Mark Isham

The Plot

Mister (Brooks) is an angry teen, with good reason.  At 14 years old, he has to take care of his heroin addicted mother (Hudson), as well as a younger boy, Pete (Dizon), whose junkie mother has all but abandoned him.  When the boys’ mothers are arrested, they flee child protective services, and are forced to live on their own.  Fending off bullies, robbers, and drug dealers, the pair grow closer as their circumstances get more difficult.

The Good

  •  The Kids Are More Than Alright:  Laying a whole movie on the performances of child actors is a risky move, but Brooks and Dizon carry the whole movie on their little shoulders.  Dizon’s Pete is so naturally polite and kind hearted in the face of his tragic life, that you can’t help but want to take care of him yourself.  And Brooks’ seething anger is so nuanced by sadness, disappointment, and fear that in the few scenes where he and Pete get to behave like children together, it’s uplifting to see that he’s still has adolescent tendencies, and isn’t completely defeated by life.
  • Junkie Jennifer:  Jennifer Hudson’s Gloria is another a stand out performance of the film.   She is delicate and sad, aware of her problems but unable to face them, illustrating addiction’s devastating force.  You want to hate her for the position she’s put her son in, but she administers enough self loathing to her character that all that’s left to feel for her is pity.
  • Mackie’s Righteous Beard:  There’s not much to this superficial thought, it’s just that he wears the hell out of a gnarly beard, below his cool mohawk, and it made me smile whenever he was on camera.  That’s it.

The Bad

  •  Go Ask Alice:  Jordin Sparks’ character, Alice, floats in and out of the movie as a former neighbor of Mister, who is keen to help the two boys now that she made it out of the projects and is dating a rich white guy.  While this story line provides a mild romantic element and ultimately leads to Mister’s realization that he must ask for help, its execution feels a bit clunky.  It feels like this element of the story was shoehorned in to cover a couple bases in both the poverty and adolescence tropes.
  • Supporting Actors:  This is not to say that the supporting actors are bad, rather they’re maybe under-utilized.  Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has the potential to be a terrifying villain, but all he really has the chance to do in this film is wear aviators and chew a toothpick.  And while Jeffrey Wright manages to make the most of his scenes, it’s only a small handful of scenes.  I just always want him to be on screen because he’s so terrific.  Same goes for Mackie.  On the bright side, each of these actors have powerful scenes with the kids, and it’s impressive to see them trade acting chops.

Overall

Honestly,  I was really hoping to avoid films that would bum me out at this year’s festival.  Unfortunately, that seems to be an especially tall order here in Park City.  Mister and Pete offers a pretty bleak view of what addiction does to families, and the treachery of inner city dynamics.  Even if there is a vaguely happy ending to this story, it doesn’t take back the emotional toll of facing the harsh reality that children sometimes have to be the adults of a household, and be responsible for their families when no one else can be.  In spite of that, the performances make this an engaging film.

Rating: 7/10