"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 â€“ and often accurate â€“ 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 Oâ€™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 couldâ€™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). Heâ€™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 â€“ seen for just a fleeting moment â€“ ran off.
The two scrape up whatever food they can to stay alive and avoid getting caught by the police â€“ led by an intimidating Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje â€“ and sent to a boysâ€™ 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 hasnâ€™t taken kindly to Misterâ€™s attitude.
And as the sweltering days drain the boysâ€™ bodies and resolves, it seems more and more like Misterâ€™s mom may have taken the same route as Peteâ€™s and bailed. Jordin Sparks from "American Idol" also appears as a kind friend from back in the day whoâ€™s moved out of the projects.
Even with a cast of some of Hollywoodâ€™s finest actors surrounding them (theyâ€™re mostly supporting roles with two or three scenes each), the filmâ€™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 Misterâ€™s little brother. Heâ€™s sweet, adorably articulate and still innocent despite all the worldâ€™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. Itâ€™s a role that couldâ€™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, heâ€™s sobbing about failing in school. Minutes later, when his teacher offers his help, Mister verbally spits it back in his face. Heâ€™s not a bad or a lazy kid; he wants to do better. Heâ€™s simply grown up learning heâ€™s the only one he can rely on, and that a backbone â€“ even if itâ€™s just a childâ€™s â€“ is the only way to survive in an unforgiving world.
Heâ€™s strong in his will to survive, but Brooks always shows the desperate uncertainty of a lonely child fighting its way to the surface. Itâ€™s a mature performance, but one that never forgets the character is still a kid. And when thereâ€™s a rare moment of youthfulness (like a makeshift game of bowling using Peteâ€™s hamster in a ball), Brooksâ€™s joy feels so satisfying, not only because it feels real but also because itâ€™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. Itâ€™s not Tillmanâ€™s fault, as his direction â€“ an energetic mix of grit and warmth â€“ fits the material nicely. His work is just the right amount tension and sentimentality.
Itâ€™s hard to pinpoint exactly why the film doesnâ€™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 itâ€™s the scriptâ€™s tendency to give moments â€“ like the boysâ€™ brief run-in with Peteâ€™s mom â€“ just a bit too much punctuation. The movie doesnâ€™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 isnâ€™t great, though, the parts certainly are, especially Brooks and Dizon. In a film with plenty of great pros, itâ€™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": ***Â
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 Nov. 25, 2015
Last night, Marvel revealed the first trailer - and footage overall - of next summer's "Captain America: Civil War" on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," and Marvel, take my money right now please.
Published Nov. 24, 2015
Google has found little ways to have fun with search - and not just by drawing its name in funny, entertaining ways based on the day. Its latest nifty secret comes from a galaxy far, far away.
Published Nov. 24, 2015
I've got chills; they're multiplying, thanks to my recent discovery of "Grease Live," a live musical and sure-to-be hate-watch event Fox is putting on next year starring Julianne Hough and Vanessa Hudgens.
Published Nov. 21, 2015
After the Packers' loss Sunday afternoon, people took to the Internet to rage. And that's totally fine and legitimate. But some of it left me sadder than Mason Crosby's kick. So here are some quick guidelines that we can hopefully follow for next Sunday to make Packer Nation a little more worthy of pride.
Published Nov. 19, 2015
For most people, bad exercise tapes and other '80s excrement would seem weird. But for Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett ... well, it's still weird. But they love it, and for over a decade, they've been curating these VHS kings of kookiness for their touring Found Footage Festival.
Published Nov. 18, 2015
After a doubtlessly thorough investigation, People Magazine has made its annual dismount from Mount Sinai - via "Jimmy Kimmel Live" last night - to declare the sexiest man alive in 2015: David Beckham.
Published Nov. 17, 2015
This morning, GQ published an interview between former Grantland head and future HBO sports talking head Bill Simmons and President Obama, and one part - concerning what sports figure the current president views himself as - will catch Packer Nation's ear.
Published Nov. 15, 2015
Perhaps my first staycation experience - in Tosa of all places - would give me a new glimpse of an old, familiar neighborhood. It didn't, but there are reasons people seek out a suburban hotel, especially this time of year.
Published Nov. 14, 2015
A man's visit to Milwaukee took a sour turn recently when he claims he discovered offensive messages hidden in a sculpture in Shorewood. The supposed messages can be found on the statue's left leg.
Published Nov. 12, 2015
"Family Feud" arrives this month to audition families for a chance to answer potentially awkward questions with potentially even more awkward responses, likely embarrass yourself on national TV and maybe cash, too.