"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 Oct. 20, 2014
In 2012, comedian Tig Notaro went through a series of intense, significant personal crises that would be overwhelming in a four-year stretch, much less in merely four months. In a matter of a few months, Notaro faced a break-up, a sudden death in the family and two potentially fatal ailments. And in the middle of all of that, she had a stand-up gig at Largo in Los Angeles. The rest, as the cliché says, is history.
Published Oct. 16, 2014
A little over a decade ago, Milwaukee musician and Testa Rosa lead vocalist Betty Blexrud-Strigens got a chance to see the legendary Patti Smith in Madison. Even though the show came quite some time after Smith's punk glory years, Blexrud-Strigens still remembers the rock legend providing a charge. Now, it's up to Blexrud-Strigens and a roster of Milwaukee artists and musicians to bring that essence back to the stage with "Smith Uncovered."
Published Oct. 15, 2014
After three years, The Rural Alberta Advantage is taking a new album on the road, including a return stop at Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. Before then, however, OnMilwaukee.com chatted with the band's drummer Paul Banwatt about the process behind "Mended with Gold," looking back at the band's past and spending some time in a creepy Canadian cabin. And, of course, hockey.
Published Oct. 14, 2014
Judged as awards bait, "Kill the Messenger" won't likely snag the golden glory it's looking for. Once you remove the arbitrary frame of awards season, "Kill the Messenger" is a solid, satisfyingly unpredictable and well performed journalism drama that - following the lead of "Shattered Glass" and, of course, "All the President's Men" - often plays like a tense thriller.
Published Oct. 13, 2014
At the end of the month, the Milwaukee Public Museum will celebrate the fall - as well as its current "Alien Worlds and Androids" exhibit - with a Sci-Fi Film Fest. Every Thursday and Saturday (save for Thanksgiving) from Oct. 23 through Nov. 29, the museum will screen a sci-fi flick in the Dome Theater.
Published Oct. 12, 2014
How does one stretch a barely 30-page short story of accumulated gripes and grumbles into a feature length film? In the case of "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," the answer is simple: poorly. By the time its 82-minute running time comes to a grateful close - and all of the cliché, contrived and crude chaos with it - Alexander's bad day has morphed into the audience's bad day.
Published Oct. 10, 2014
Few bands have come out of the gates as strongly as Milwaukee's own Field Report. So it's safe to say the bar was set high for Field Report's eventual sophomore attempt, one nicely cleared by "Marigolden," released Tuesday, Oct. 7.
Published Oct. 7, 2014
Just when it seemed like the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival was just beginning. As it turns out, 14 days goes extremely fast, as the sixth annual cinema extravaganza comes to a close Thursday night. But let's not quite start throwing dirt on the festival's casket quite yet. There still are three days of movies, filled with plenty of great options to offer. Here are some of the best of the rest of the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival.
Published Oct. 6, 2014
If the opening moment of "Wetlands" desperately pleads against its existence, the ensuing 109 minutes of youthfully exuberant gross-out comedy - currently showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival with a final showing Monday night at the Times Cinema at 10 p.m. - couldn't be a more enthusiastic endorsement for it.
Published Oct. 6, 2014
This afternoon, William Stace - founder of the Miramar Theatre - announced that he and Larry Widen, former owner of the Times and Rosebud Cinemas, have together formed a group called The Milwaukee Theatre Alliance. The group's goal is to purchase the long-closed Modjeska Theatre and reopen it as a multi-use performing arts space.