It’s usually the sign of a good film when it provokes a strong physical reaction, of any kind. So I’m really pleased that everything I saw at last weekend’s Sundance London Festival had that effect on me. There wasn’t a single dud amongst the five feature films and the programme of 10 shorts that I watched during the festival. Still, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete stands way out as the screening that generated the most emotion from me – to the point where I had to take a moment and compose myself after it had finished.
Wonderful, heart-wrenching, touching and anger-inducing, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is the true-to-life story of two young boys, simply trying to make it through the summer holidays. Living in the projects of Brooklyn, New York, with single mothers who need parenting themselves, if the local bullies and gangsters don’t get them, then their dysfunctional home lives surely will.
Mister is determined to make a better life for himself. He dreams of becoming an actor and, obsessed with the film Fargo, learns and re-enacts a key monologue from the script in preparation for the open auditions that he’s sure will be his route to freedom. This film really brings home the challenges that some children face to do things that others take totally for granted, how hard it must be to stay on the straight and narrow when circumstances are against them and the double life they have to lead to juggle the pressures of school and home. When the odds are stacked so high against you, the daily struggle to lift yourself above them must be soul destroying. Despite that, The Inevitable Defeat is ultimately a story of the power of hope, friendship and love.
I absolutely adored this film. I experienced a roller coaster of emotion throughout and was totally drained by the time it finished, after crying for the best part of two hours. But whilst The Inevitable Defeat is bleak in many ways, it’s also extremely cute and humorous in others. The writer, Michael Starrbury, has captured that beautiful irony of real life – that even in the saddest times, the smallest or most ridiculous things can still make you smile and even laugh.
I admit that I often cry in films but this was something else. And I was competing with the elderly white lady that was sitting next to me. I only mention her colour because in many ways, she and I couldn’t seem any more different, but sitting there in the dark our hearts went out to those boys equally – and at times to their mothers – in a way that doesn’t see race but only people. And in the subsequent Q&A she said the film was a real eye-opener for her, giving her a real insight into a life she previously had no understanding of. She also expressed what I felt – that the characters were so well written and developed that somehow you even have an element of sympathy for the bad guys.
Director George Tillman, Jr. has done an amazing job drawing such convincing performances out of Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon, who play Mister and Pete, respectively. During the Q&A he explained how difficult it was to get the film made in the first place. After all, on paper, who wants to watch a film about a 14-year old black boy and his friendship with an Asian kid? There had also been concern that he couldn’t possibly find a boy capable of carrying the entire movie – which is what’s required. It wasn’t just the financiers who were worried. Understandably, the actors he approached also had their reservations, conveying in no uncertain terms that without the right lead they didn’t want to be involved. But they had nothing to fear, as the boys step up to the plate.
Brooks is brilliant in the role of Mister, despite the immense pressure that Tillman describes him being under – not only is he in every scene but some scenes are him alone. This film may be about young boys but it’s a really adult script and he handles his part with great strength and maturity. Similarly, Dizon is perfectly cast as his young companion, Pete – combining vulnerability and naivety with a dash of street nous. Just as some kids have to do in real life. Tillman explains that, by chance, Brooks auditioned ten minutes after Dizon, so he and the casting agents brought the two boys back in together as they felt their chemistry might work. And they were right. There’s a great supporting cast, too, including the surprise of Jennifer Hudson, almost unrecognisable as Mister’s mother.
As at previous Sundance London Q&As, I was disappointed that the writer wasn’t there to give his perspective but Tillman talked around elements of the script. Michael Starrbury named the character ‘Mister’ because the life he’s been thrown into means he’s a young kid who’s an adult. He looks after himself like an adult and in some ways, he’s the adult to his mother, but in the end he is just a kid. And part of his journey is the realisation that he can’t handle life alone – kids, and sometimes even adults, need help.
I see a lot of really good films. Every now and then I see one that’s really special. One that really touches me. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is one of those. And once you’ve watched it, you realise that the film’s title is wonderfully, sadly perfect.