"Never work with children or animals."
That quote is attributed to famed actor-comedian W.C. Fields, but it now belongs to all of show business as a humorous – and often accurate – piece of advice. See "The Last Airbender" or "Star Wars: Episode I." Then again, you could Frankenstein the talents of young Mary Badham, Jodie Foster, Tatum O’Neal and the kids from "Moonrise Kingdom," and those scripts would still come off wretched.
From performance quality to production concerns, relying on child actors is a risk or reward proposition. In the case of "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," the latest from director and native Milwaukeean George Tillman Jr., the results land firmly in the latter. Youngsters Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon end up being the best thing Tillman could’ve asked for, electrifying the film and giving the story the heart it needs.
Right from the opening moments, things are looking grim for Mister (Brooks). He’s failed the eighth grade, and his mother (a shockingly haggard Jennifer Hudson) is a resigned servant to her drug addiction and her pimp/drug dealer (Anthony Mackie). As things reach the breaking point between Mister and his mom, the police come knocking and take her away. Now, during a punishing summer heat wave, Mister must take care of himself and Pete (Dizon), his quiet Korean neighbor whose junkie mother – seen for just a fleeting moment – ran off.
The two scrape up whatever food they can to stay alive and avoid getting caught by the police – led by an intimidating Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – and sent to a boys’ home with a history of violence. This means panhandling on the street next to an ornery homeless man (Jeffrey Wright) who may or may not be a war vet, and battling with an Indian corner store clerk (Kenneth Maharaj) who hasn’t taken kindly to Mister’s attitude.
And as the sweltering days drain the boys’ bodies and resolves, it seems more and more like Mister’s mom may have taken the same route as Pete’s and bailed. Jordin Sparks from "American Idol" also appears as a kind friend from back in the day who’s moved out of the projects.
Even with a cast of some of Hollywood’s finest actors surrounding them (they’re mostly supporting roles with two or three scenes each), the film’s success instead rests almost entirely on young Brooks and Dizon. And though they look frail on screen (shockingly so as it goes along), their performances are strong enough to carry the film to success.
Dizon gets the easier and more crowd-pleasing of the two roles as Pete, who basically becomes Mister’s little brother. He’s sweet, adorably articulate and still innocent despite all the world’s thrown at the little loner. At one point, he quietly reveals to Mister a history of sexual abuse from his neighbor. Later, he shows a brutal iron burn on his back. It’s a role that could’ve come off forced or saccharine, but Dizon is just the right amount of charm.
Brooks, though, is the real revelation. The young actor is a powerful fury, playing a hurt, vulnerable and even hopeful young boy hidden under a mask of stubborn self-confidence. When we first see Mister, he’s sobbing about failing in school. Minutes later, when his teacher offers his help, Mister verbally spits it back in his face. He’s not a bad or a lazy kid; he wants to do better. He’s simply grown up learning he’s the only one he can rely on, and that a backbone – even if it’s just a child’s – is the only way to survive in an unforgiving world.
He’s strong in his will to survive, but Brooks always shows the desperate uncertainty of a lonely child fighting its way to the surface. It’s a mature performance, but one that never forgets the character is still a kid. And when there’s a rare moment of youthfulness (like a makeshift game of bowling using Pete’s hamster in a ball), Brooks’s joy feels so satisfying, not only because it feels real but also because it’s been so hard earned.
Their compelling lead performances and their slow bond end up providing the emotional impact the rest of "Mister and Pete" is strangely never quite able to summon. It’s not Tillman’s fault, as his direction – an energetic mix of grit and warmth – fits the material nicely. His work is just the right amount tension and sentimentality.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the film doesn’t quite hit as hard as it should. It might be the occasionally relentless story from writer Michael Starrbury (another Milwaukee native) that seems to pile on five tragic moments for every one remotely pleasant one. Or maybe it’s the script’s tendency to give moments – like the boys’ brief run-in with Pete’s mom – just a bit too much punctuation. The movie doesn’t quite yank on the heartstrings, but I could certainly feel a tug that I wish was just a bit more delicate.
Even if the whole isn’t great, though, the parts certainly are, especially Brooks and Dizon. In a film with plenty of great pros, it’s the kids that own the screen and, in the end, make "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" a winner.
Take that, Mr. Fields.
"The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete": ***
1 comment about this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published May 26, 2015
The origins of the Spare Change Trio probably sound like something you've heard a variation of before. What you may not have heard before in the Milwaukee music scene, however, is something quite like the Spare Change Trio's sound - a mix of jam-happy reggae roots rock with a dash of something from Down Under: a didgeridoo.
Published May 25, 2015
Comedy sequels typically serve as an invitation for disappointment. There are a few exceptions (see: the meta mayhem of last summer's "22 Jump Street"), and thankfully the minorly flawed but majorly funny "Pitch Perfect 2" slides in amongst them.
Published May 25, 2015
The Blake Lively romantic drama "The Age of Adaline" feels like a fairy tale - an incredibly pretty one at that - but told like a lab report.
Published May 14, 2015
The new Sundance-approved Jack Black high school reunion comedy "The D Train" is a darkly oddball mix of laughs and drama simultaneously amusing and cringe-inducingly awkward. So ... pretty much just like my high school days all over again.
Published May 14, 2015
Located in Hales Corners, the W. Ben Hunt Cabin is much more than simply an old rustic locale. It's a lived-in museum to an era long gone, as well as a tribute to an incredible man who predicted the future, turned his hobby into history and did his best to keep some of our nation's earliest traditions from disappearing and merely collecting dust in the past.
Published May 11, 2015
Monday evening, Ald. Tony Zielinski held a community meeting in order to address the recent rumors and speculation concerning the potential sale of At Random - in addition to five other buildings held by the same owner - and to take community input concerning the neighborhood bar.
Published May 10, 2015
"Hot Pursuit" isn't a particularly strong film, and admittedly there's not much of a rousing defense to be made for it (get that pull quote ready for the ad campaign!). But there is one element - and a fairly significant one at that - in the movie's corner: Reese Witherspoon. I will go to bat for her delightfully bright eyed performance here, one that serves as just enough of a sparkplug to almost single-handedly get this tired comedic vehicle where it's going.
Published May 6, 2015
2003's "Big Fish" is a sweet and delightful - and not just because it's one of the few times this side of the millennium you could honestly say, "I enjoyed a Tim Burton movie." Now First Stage will attempt to bring Burton's signature oddball visuals and "Big Fish" author Daniel Wallace's imagination-rich book to live, musical life on stage. In charge is director Jeff Whiting, who chatted with us about bringing tall tales - and taller giants - to life.
Published May 5, 2015
With new headliner and schedule announcements popping up seemingly everyday, the sunny sonic spectacle that is the Big Gig is finally beginning to take shape. But while most of the work takes place in closed-door meetings and over negotiation-heavy phone calls, a part of the Summerfest process has also been taking place on a stage right out in the open, featuring local bands hoping to win in front of a crowd of fans hoping to be won over.
Published May 1, 2015
It's easy to forget that, before it became the franchise model for everything, "The Avengers" didn't sound like a great idea.Yet Marvel and Joss Whedon took a pile of potential excess and smoothly honed it into a burst of pop entertainment. And amazingly, they've managed to make it all work yet again with "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," assembling a ton of moving parts into another thoroughly fun - if not quite as effortlessly harmonious - blockbuster.