The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister & Pete, a kitchen-sink coming-of-age movie about two boys left to fend for themselves in the projects, boasts a supporting cast full of famous faces rendered unrecognizable by makeup. There’s Jennifer Hudson, covered in tattoos and junkie pimples, her head topped by a skunk-tail weave; Anthony Mackie, wearing a foot-and-a-half-long beard that looks like a ramp leading up to his sad, sleepy eyes; and Jeffrey Wright hidden beneath unkempt gray stubble and bum clothes. Despite their limited screen time, Hudson and Mackie—who play, respectively, one boy’s mother and her pimp—both register as fully developed characters. In general, Mister & Pete succeeds with this sort of narrative small stuff, establishing the housing project’s internal mythology as well as the tricky dynamics of its underworld.
It helps that director George Tillman Jr.—whose last film was the underappreciated Dwayne Johnson vehicle Faster—has a gift for visual shorthand. When, late in the film, he humanizes a feared local cop with a quick shot of a newspaper clipping taped to his dashboard, it comes across as elegant rather than heavy-handed, in part because the connection between the cop and the article isn’t immediately obvious. Forcing the viewers to figure it out on their own—and to keep thinking about it into the next scene—makes this detail seem like a real insight into the character’s personal life and values.
What seems to elude the movie, however, is a sense of shape and balance; it sticks to a familiar horrors-of-childhood formula—a continual cycle of hope and betrayal—and tends to wrap up subplots with convenient twists. Even Skylan Brooks’ and Ethan Dizon’s strong performances as the title characters can’t distract from the sputtering storytelling, which recycles the same scene structure—the boys pin their hopes on something, then have their hopes dashed—so often that the central elements of the plot (Brooks’ search for Hudson after she gets arrested and his dreams of becoming a child actor) become irrelevant. The subtle touch Tillman applies to small moments—like the way he reveals that an addict glimpsed on a street corner is Dizon’s mother, without ever stating it outright—throws the bigger, clunkier scenes that move the plot along into sharp, unflattering relief.