Sometimes it’s the little things in a movie that get you. Early in George Tillman Jr.’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, a bright but obstreperous 13-year-old inner-city kid—the Mister of the title, played by Skylan Brooks—bounces back from the trauma of getting an F on an important paper by fishing a postcard from his school locker. The card, creased from being folded and unfolded many times, trumpets the creation of a new TV show and announces an open casting call for child actors. Everything it might represent to a kid from the projects is enough to tear you apart. The creases only up the ante: The bigger the dream, the more important it is to fold it into as small a package as possible, partly to hide it from people who might laugh and partly to protect yourself from the terrible reality that it might never come true.
Many terrible things happen to the kids in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, most notably, Mister’s heroin-addicted prostitute mother (a potentially overwrought role played by a blessedly low-key Jennifer Hudson) is picked up by the police, leaving Mister and his younger neighbor, a sweet-faced and guileless Korean kid named Pete (Ethan Dizon), to fend for themselves for what turns out to be the whole summer.
But Tillman is more interested in these kids’ resourcefulness and resilience than in turning their suffering into liberal-guilt porn. Despite its pessimistic-sounding title, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete is a world apart from miserablist exercises like Lee Daniels’s Precious, and it’s far less dour than Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2004 Nobody Knows, which also deals with parentless youngsters somehow scraping by. Tillman, working from a screenplay by Michael Starrbury, doesn’t diminish the horrors these kids face: Both have mothers who work the streets, barely providing for them. And both boys know instinctively that the system is more likely to harm than help them. They utter the name “Riverview,” the children’s home run by Child Protective Services, as if it were Rikers Island for tots, desperately dodging the cops who might drag them there.
Yet there’s joy in sudden independence, too, and Tillman keys in to that: A montage in which Mister whips up a few makeshift meals using whatever he can find in the cupboard—canned tomato sauce, sweet corn—is set to a scrappy little snippet of jazz reminiscent of Dave Brubeck, optimistic to its core. (Mark Isham and Alicia Keys, also one of the movie’s producers, score the film.)
Tillman (Men of Honor, Notorious) is clumsy in his handling of a few scenes, and considering what these kids are up against—junkie moms, drug-dealing pimp neighbors—the ending might be a little too implausibly upbeat. But Tillman seems to know that we need to go home feeling hope for Mister and Pete, who, it turns out, aren’t so easily defeated. Young Brooks, in particular, keeps the movie spinning. Mister is a charismatic kid, a showboater; he’s even developed a personal method-acting regimen involving a monologue from Fargo, which he delivers with Stanislavskian zeal. In one of the movie’s sharpest and funniest scenes, he uses his killer acting skills to wriggle out of a jam with a patronizing white store clerk. Happy endings are all well and good, but that’s really the moment we know, despite it all, Mister will do just fine.