When you think of middle school-aged boys, you probably don't consider "terrific acting skills" to be one of the demographic's defining characteristics. But get a load of the kids at the center of The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete and Mud, two Sundance entries that don't otherwise have much in common. They're enough to make you wonder if the theater classes have gotten more advanced since you were in junior high.
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete has Skylan Brooks (age 13) and Ethan Dizon (10) as the title characters, two resourceful kids in a Brooklyn housing project who must fend for themselves in the absence of their crack-whore mothers. In Mud, Tye Sheridan (who turned 15 during the shoot) and Jacob Lofland (15) are slightly less impoverished Arkansas boys who meet a McConaughey-esque fugitive on the Mississippi River. Both films are good anyway, but they're made infinitely better by these rock-solid performances -- the opposite of the more familiar scenario, where an OK movie is hurt by obnoxious child actors who need to be strangled.
Young actors are nothing new for Sundance, of course. Current Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis was only eight when she came to Park City with Beasts of the Southern Wild last year (and only six when the movie was made). Evan Rachel Wood had her 15th birthday while shooting Thirteen, which premiered at Sundance in 2003, and Abigail Breslin was nine when she danced her way into our hearts with Little Miss Sunshine at Sundance 2006. It's really the only way that it's ever appropriate to bring children to Sundance.
Skylan Brooks' character, an eight grader whose first name is Mister (oh, quirky Sundance), is an aspiring actor himself, with plans to audition at an upcoming open casting call and be swept away to Hollywood. This ambition stems partly from a desire to escape the ghetto, but also because Mister loves movies and acting. Reciting monologues from Trading Places and Fargo endears him to us and gives the character a little more personality than the average underprivileged ghetto kid in an indie movie.
Dizon plays Pete, a quiet kid who's younger than Mister and generally better behaved. Their differences in age and ethnicity hinder the friendship at first, but eventually lead to bonding:
MISTER: You my nigga, Pete?
PETE: I'm Korean.
MISTER: You can still be my nigga.
PETE: [Pause] Do I have to be?
While Mister and Pete are distinctive characters who say and do unusual things, the 14-year-old boys in Mud, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), are interesting because they're ordinary. Some of their circumstances are strange, but the boys themselves always seem like average American kids, which makes them relatable. Mister and Pete are movie characters; Ellis and Neckbone are boys we knew (or were).
It's tempting to say that a movie like Mister & Pete requires more acting skill than one like Mud, where the boys are basically playing either themselves or their peers. That's one of the points that detractors have raised about Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild: how much was she "acting," and how much was she just doing ordinary kid things? And it's worth noting that the Mister & Pete boys are career actors, each with several prior professional credits, while the Mud boys aren't. Sheridan had only been in school plays before he got a part in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life (his one pre-Mud credit), and Lofland was a local kid plucked from obscurity at an Arkansas casting call.
But a lack of experience doesn't mean a lack of skill, and it's harder than it looks to convincingly play a character who is average. Average people do things like cry, worry, laugh and fight, all of which look fake if the actor doesn't know how to deliver. The most emotionally fraught scenes in Mud show that Sheridan is the real deal, able to go much deeper than just playing make-believe pretend time. (Lofland is good too, but doesn't have nearly as much to do as Neckbone, even though a character named Neckbone should obviously be given prominence.)
Skylan Brooks as Mister and Tye Sheridan as Ellis aren't necessarily getting the same kind of awards buzz that Quvenzhané Wallis had as Hushpuppy 365 days ago when Beasts of the Southern Wild was coaxing tears from all the ducts in Park City. Then again, how does anyone get buzz unless somebody starts buzzing them? Am I supposed to start? OK, I'm hearing some major awards buzz for the teenage leads in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete and Mud! It's all anyone is talking about at Sundance. You heard it here first!
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