The best reason to see “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” executive produced by Alicia Keys and premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, is the breakout star turn by young actor Skylan Brooks. Unfortunately, he’s also pretty much the only reason to see a movie that’s more sentimental than moving and more cutesy than credible.
At least “Mister and Pete” is as cutesy as a movie about the hard knocks of ghetto life can be. Brooks stars as heroic 14-year-old Mister, who struggles at school but dreams of escaping from the projects and achieving his goal of becoming a big time movie star. His mother (Jennifer Hudson, de-glammed and fully committed in an underdeveloped role) is a hardcore heroin addict who supports her habit through prostitution.
Mister routinely sees residents in his neighborhood dragged off to jail and kids shipped off to group homes by child protective services. When Mister’s mother gets picked up by the police, he hides out to avoid the same fate.
The bulk of the movie charts Mister’s incredible summer of self-preservation, while simultaneously caring for nine-year-old Korean neighbor Pete (Ethan Dizon, charming but rather superfluous to the story). In that way it recalls Steven Soderbergh’s under-seen Depression-era gem “King of the Hill,” but “Mister and Pete” has none of that film’s carefully observed scenarios, nuanced characters or skillful filmmaking.
Director George Tillman Jr. — known for bringing Hollywood gloss to lower budget films like “Soul Food” and “Notorious” — is in over his head, laying sentiment on thick with every horrible twist and turn of Mister’s rough childhood. The film works so hard to manipulate your emotions while watching a kid fighting the odds, that you wind up feeling little at all.
Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie and Jeffrey Wright float through the movie in tiny, irrelevant roles, but there’s no doubt Brooks (whose credits include guest roles in “iCarly” and “Childrens Hospital”) is a real discovery. Whether he’s quoting dialogue from his favorite movies — “Trading Places” and “Fargo” — or thinking on his feet to keep himself and his little buddy safe, Brooks significantly elevates mediocre material. That’s one sign of a true star.