The good news first: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete does not elect to render that inevitable defeat as "death by radiation poisoning", meaning that a bare minimum, this isn't the most depressing movie about a pair of children hunting desperately for food and shelter that has ever been made. And golly, when you've got "less sad than Grave of the Fireflies" in your corner, you know you've made a rollicking ol' crowd-pleaser.

Seriously, though, Mister & Pete is a rough, savage time at the movies, in which a poor Brooklyn neighborhood is laid bare with impeccable thoroughness and guttural impact by director George Tillman, Jr, who presents here one of the most vigorously un-romantic depictions of urban poverty in recent cinema; there's a tendency that happens often when filmmakers and film crews set up shop in the corners of any big city where people live as best they can, where the results come off as filtered through a style that heightens them in some way. Or sometimes there's a mindful attempt to avoid that, turning into so sterile and self-conscious that the results feel ethnographic, capturing something real in a documentary sense but also stressing the filmmaker's remove from the subject he or she is depicting. This is not the case with Mister & Pete, which does everything remotely in its power to capture this neighborhood and its housing projects with an unaffected intimacy and realism that absolutely do feel authentic in a way that few movies manage to do. Disingenuously so, one might even argue, given that the film tells a distinctly melodramatic story and does, after all, stage its setting for dramatic effect: once the bridge has been crossed that leaves Jeffrey Wright playing a homeless man, total authenticity has been left behind.

Mister and Pete, for the record, are a pair of boys: Mister (Skylan Brooks) is a 13-year-old African-American whose mother, Gloria (Jennifer Hudson, going aggressively unlikable) is a crack addict and prostitute; Pete (Ethan Dizon) is a younger Korean boy whose mother is one of Gloria's colleagues, and who, at the movie's outset, is staying with Mister and Gloria on account of his mother's most recent incarceration. One day, Gloria is arrested - this is not an unusual occurrence, Mister's jejune reaction makes clear - and the boys hunker down for what Mister presumes will be a few days of keeping things together with the help of food stamps and quick-thinking to stay away from the neighborhood's bogeyman of a truant officer (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and an angry convenience store owner. After a few days, it becomes clear that Gloria isn't going to come back, and this short inconvenience turns into a hellish summer of near-starvation and cagey reliance on the very conditional help they can receive from their moms' pimp Kris (Anthony Mackie). It's like a wacky family adventure from the '70s, only most of it is soul-crushingly depressing.

The film's unmitigated triumphs are few in number, but they are fantastically overwhelming. There is, as mentioned, the mise en scène, in which Mister and Pete are situated against a stifling, uncaring few blocks of New York in a way that greatly evokes the physical place and the psychological ramification it has for the boys (the visuals are most sharply expressed in their contrast: one scene sends the boys to a middle-class grocery store with a mostly white clientele, and the sleek chilliness of the location, and the incongruity of the characters within it, tells volumes about the dirtier, sweatier, more vital places they live in). There is also Brooks's performance as Mister, which I would confidently and perhaps lazily call the best child performance of 2013, depicting a defensive, pent-up young man with hopes and fears that he defiantly crushes down in a blanket of self-preservation and survival instinct, without the easy crutch of a big monologue or a tearful finale (actually, there is a big monologue, but not the kind that I just described). He keeps Mister from being just a cute innocent in a tough situation; he's a bit of a stubborn dick in fact, ruthless in making sure he keeps himself and Pete safe and alive.

Where things start to get rocky is in everything that's not an unmitigated triumph, or any kind of success at all, though for the most part the film keeps away from making any critical mistakes. The acting is mostly good, though outside of Hudsen and Akinnuoye-Agbaje, nobody makes that huge of an impression, and this is compounded by a script, by Michael Starrbury, that mostly doesn't know what to do with any of the multitude of side characters who wander in and out of Mister and Pete's life. In fact, the script on the whole suffers from being disjointed and episodic, presenting many anecdotal moments in the increasingly desperate lives of the boys without clearly fitting them together into a structure: when it becomes clear, near the end, that we have spent literally months watching the boys, it doesn't intuitively seem like something we can square with the onscreen evidence (worse still: at a key moment, a character goes missing, and the way the editing communicates this, you'd never guess it was the multiple days dialogue later clarifies). There's something meant to be like a countdown, to an acting audition that Mister is convinced will be his ticket out, but it's introduced so casually and mentioned so sporadically afterward, it's easy to lose sight of it altogether. And the heavily symbolic use of a speech from Fargo as Mister's audition monologue is contrived as all hell: even if we allow that it makes sense for Mister to have even heard of that film, the dialogue is too idiosyncratic for his delivery of it to work the way that the script needs it to.

More generally, the script never really rises above the level of misery porn, exploring the slow disintegration of two boys in excruciating detail to make sure we feel good and awful about the state of inner city youths. An admirable goal, but Mister & Pete goes about exploring it in extensively heart-wrending melodramatic detail, that the visual realism can counterbalance, but not entirely overcome. It's a pulverising film, but not a completely honest one, and not a terribly elegant one, either; what's good is fantastic, but there are certainly enough problems to keep this from being a truly great study of inner-city life.