Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.
Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor perish for ever.
This must be the season for survival films because not only do we have the two richly publicized ones about adult survival (Gravity and Captain Phillips, reviewed elsewhere in this issue), but also this wonderful George Tillman Jr indie film about two children’s struggle for survival—though this is definitely NOT a children’s film. When the drug-addicted mothers of two boys living in a huge Brooklyn public housing project are arrested and taken away, the boys manage to hide from the police in order to stay out of a juvenile center that has a bad reputation.
African American Mister Winfield (Skylan Brooks) at 14 is the oldest of the pair, resentful that before her arrest his mother Gloria (Jennifer Hudson) had put him in charge of Pete (Ethan Dizon), an 8 year-old Korean American. Pete’s mom also has sunk into the depths of the drug culture—apparently both mothers had become friends while working for the local drug kingpin and pimp Kris (Anthony Mackie). “Mister” really is the name of the boy who, on the last day of school has learned that he has failed 8th grade. With a mother who is usually too spaced out on heroin to offer any kind of maternal care, he has had to become tough and resourceful before his time. Pete, on the other hand is naïve and far too trusting (despite a secret he harbors) to do well in the projects. Despite rebuffs and put-downs from Mister, Pete exudes good will toward the older boy, accepting Mister’s insulting remarks without resentment.
Once the police give up their perfunctory search of the apartment and leave with Gloria in tow, the boys emerge from their hiding places, and their struggle for survival begins. With just a couple cans of food and condiments in the decrepit refrigerator, Mister throws together and cooks their supper. Soon they run out of food. Earlier Mister had made himself persona non grata at the local food mart when he had sassed the Pakistani owner over the failure of Gloria’s maxed out welfare food card. Neither he nor the local denizens hanging around the projects are of help, one of them Henry (Jeffrey Wright), a homeless veteran sleeping in the street running them off his corner when they make a sign and try begging for handouts.
Observing through the peephole of his door apartment thieves carrying off a TV set, probably the same ones who had ransacked Mister’s home, the boys also become thieves, snatching cans of food from an apartment to which they gain entry. One night they fill up a shopping cart in a super market, and when Mister tries unsuccessfully to use a welfare card (presumably Pete’s mom’s), a suspicious clerk comes over to them, and Mister spins a sob story about his mother working two jobs and his wanting to surprise her on her birthday tomorrow by cooking her a meal. The clerk, completely taken in, Okays their order despite the card not registering. I had no sooner thought “Oscar performance” when Mister smugly says to Pete on their way out, “And the Oscar goes to…” Oh, yes, I should have reported before that Pete sees a future for himself in acting. He recites by heart dialogue from movies (that from Fargo hardly being appropriate for an 8th grader!), and has saved a battered card announcing an open audition in August for children’s parts in a popular TV show Beverly Hills. Mister is banking on winning the audition as his way out of the projects.
Mister had expected his mother to return after a few days, but the days turn into weeks, and there is no sign of either of the mothers. Given their drug habit, could they be dead? Continually keeping out of sight of the police, especially Sergeant Pike (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who led the team that had arrested Gloria, Mister and Pete do manage to have some fun, such as improvising a bowling game with Pete’s hamster running its clear plastic ball into a set of cans substituted for pins. However, matters really heat up when the electricity in the apartment is turned off—no cool air from the window air conditioner, or stove for cooking– and the summer temperature soars.
Gratifying to people of faith are several moments of grace in the film. Former projects resident Alice (Jordin Sparks) provides some help at first but then becomes too caught up in her own schemes with a married man to keep her promises to the boys. Earlier, when they had visited Pete’s apartment, a neighbor woman offered to take in the boy. Mister, relieved to be rid of the unwanted responsibility, starts to walk away, but stops and turns around, obviously uneasy over something creepy about the woman. We learn that he was right to go back. Also, after the supermarket scam, Mister sees Henry curled up asleep against a building. We wonder why he goes over to the man who had been so unkind to him. He lays down a bag of apples, apparently out of concern that the man is even worse off than they are.
How the summer ends with the television program audition and a confrontation with the police will win your heart over to this movie. And only at the end will you see that the seemingly negative title of the film is actually a positive sign that Mister has learned the lesson that no one, no matter how tough they think they are, makes it alone in this world. This is a coming of age tale that, despite the very good adult cast, rests firmly on the narrow shoulders of two engaging young actors who are more than up to the task. I wish this film could have gained the attention that was lavished on last year’s Sundance film Beasts of the Southern Wild. If it had, we would be hearing people comparing Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon to Quvenzhane Wallis—these kids are that good!
The full review with a set of 10 questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the November issue of Visual Parables, which will be available toward the end of October. If you are a subscriber and plan to discuss this film with a group, contact the editor, and he can send you the full review