Take an African American and a Korean American school boy, two mothers trying to support them working in the world's oldest profession, set them in Brooklyn public housing, mix in pimps, thieves, beggars, and a daily maternal dose of heroin, and what do you get? A heart-warming saga of family and friends.
This film from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, comes via two Midwesterners. Directed by George Tilman Jr. (Men of Honor, Soul Food) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a screenplay by Michael Starrbury from Minneapolis, Minnesota, the film was shot in the Ingersoll Housing Project. Like the borough and the filmmakers, the story walks the line between worlds.
Brooklyn is cool these days, no doubt about it. The borough has out-cooled Manhattan, some say, with its trendy restaurants, gentrified row houses, groovy concert venues, and clothing consignment shops whose acceptance of cast-offs conveys significant prestige to a wardrobe, even if discarded.
But alongside these upscale developments lies the other Brooklyn, the underbelly that was there long before the hipsters, the Brooklyn whose housing projects still shelter drug dealers, welfare mothers and hookers. These are the poor (who will always be with us?), whose ranks are far from diminishing. They have no greater prospects than they've ever had; the gleaming Gotham that rises across the East River may as well be the Land of Oz.
Skylan Brooks plays Mister, a likeable kid whom we meet in the opening scene as his teacher is flunking him from the eighth grade. Mister takes it hard, as he does all the bad luck dished out to him, but it's clear he's going to fight back. Ethan Dizon plays Pete, Mister's younger sidekick, whose mother is also a working girl. Pete's is the voice of innocence, the modulating influence of reason and fairness in the face of corruption.
When police carry off Mister's mother to rehab and Pete's mother disappears into the shadows, the boys are on their own for the summer, trying to beat the heat and stay alive. From here the story becomes picaresque, with Mister and Pete resembling Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as they flaunt the authorities in their quest to feed themselves and avoid Riverside, the home for orphan boys. They dodge the cops, the neighborhood bully, and the territorial convenience store owner who suspects (rightly) Mister of trying to take his goods.
They eat ketchup sandwiches and canned green beans with tomato sauce. They run out of soap and push the fridge up against the front door to keep out intruders.
As the summer exacts its tolls, Mister sets his sites on a child casting call for a Hollywood film, which he sees as his deliverance. He practices his audition, polishing the bits he hopes will take him to Beverly Hills where the streets are paved with gold.
In many respects the film is an archetypal American story. With a score by Alicia Keys and recordings by Otis Redding, it holds its head high through squalor and misfortune with the guiding light of the American dream.
In parts the journey feels a little long and its characters a bit too polished. Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker, Million Dollar Baby) plays Kris the pimp with a collected poise that many a young professional might aspire to. Jordin Sparks plays Alice, a somewhat unformed character whose role doesn't add much beyond a coming-of-age milestone for Mister to kiss.
But with fine performances by the lead players, the acting portrays a genuine love between Mister and his mother, in spite of it all, and a convincing grief and regret on her part for the life she has delivered to her son.
When summer finally ends and the first day of school rolls around, Mister sits once more in the classroom of the same teacher, who asks his students to write the traditional opening day essay, What I Did This Summer. Mister takes pen to paper for his tome. This is classic Americana, Brooklyn project style.