An endearing tale of resilience, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete (*** out of four; rated R; opening Friday in select cities) features a trio of unadorned, astute performances- two of them by children.
Mister, a tough but vulnerable inner-city kid, is played beautifully by 13-year-old Skylan Brooks. A scrawny eighth-grader, he's forced into early adulthood by an irresponsible junkie mom.
Mister's dream - an open casting call for a new TV show - appears to keep him going. But what really motivates his resourcefulness is Pete, played by 11-year-old Ethan Dizon. Pete is a neighbor boy, smaller than Mister and far more guileless. Both kids are essentially abandoned by their drug-addicted mothers during a hot, sticky summer in the Brooklyn projects.
Dizon and Brooks are wonderfully natural actors, and their characters' bond becomes like that of brothers, with Mister looking out for Pete, at first grudgingly and ultimately with real affection.
In a role that could easily have been overplayed, Jennifer Hudson skirts the obvious playing Gloria, Mister's heroin-addict mother, with subtlety.
One minute she's shooting up in their apartment, in front of Mister. The next she insists that she's going to "get things in order," stop taking drugs and find a job.
Mister calls her on it, having heard her empty promises too many times.
Feeling his disrespect, Gloria alternately cowers and lashes out. Then she disappears. Pete's mother is worse. Not only does she go AWOL, but she has brutally mistreated her son.
The boys are cut from different cloth: Mister is angry and defensive, Pete is docile and trusting.
When Pete asks him gravely if it's OK not to love your mother, Mister gives him the benefit of his own sad experience: "You can't help but love her, Pete. But you don't have to like her."
The movie is at its weakest depicting Mister's relationship with former neighbor, Alice, played by singer Jordin Sparks. It feels like something out of another movie, even a sitcom. She's the good-hearted neighbor who managed to move on up, but occasionally swoops in with a big smile, some bland words of encouragement and a bag of donuts.
With a talent for imitations from favorite films like Fargo and Trading Places, Mister, who is African-American, uses his acting skills in a wily, practical fashion, concocting a story intended to prompt white liberal guilt in a grocery store clerk. It works.
The clerk's random act of kindness is a welcome respite from the mounting horrors the kids endure.
Perhaps most terrifying to both Mister and Pete is the looming threat of Riverview, the kids home run by Child Protective Services.
There are occasional moments of grace amid the bleakness. Mister scrounges up some food, cooking up makeshift meals that Pete gratefully gobbles, and keeps his younger pal entertained with his impressions.
Director George Tillman Jr. compellingly probes how parentless kids cope without financial resources or adults who give a damn. Given the social issue at its core, it's not surprising to see film veterans like Anthony Mackie and Jeffrey Wright pop up in small parts and Alicia Keys contributing the musical score.
Tillman wisely presents the world from the kids' perspective. Michael Starrbury's script stays away from melodrama and provides just enough hope to keep the saga from sinking under the weight of its bleakness.