The film’s title might suggest the quirkiness of a Wes Anderson film, but its world is anything but. There are some elements: rolling a hamster in its wheel to knock down bottles of shampoo, and Mister’s futile quest to find stardom as an actor living in Beverly Hills. There’s just as much quirkiness in the final scene, when his teacher tasks him with writing about what he did last summer. In some ways, this quirkiness feels wrong: this isn’t a quirky world, this is a hard, dangerous world. Faced with starvation and Pete’s temperature rising, the stakes are death. Not quirkiness.
In the opening scenes, we see Mister skating through his neighborhood. But this isn’t the title sequence to The Simpsons. There is no smiling police officer waving to the camera; there is no angry bartender; no happy neighborinos. Mister’s neighborhood is hit by poverty. A veteran sleeps on the sidewalk; a queue of people trails outside the door to the employment office.
In many ways, it reminds me of Fresh (1994). An African American kid living in the projects, faced with economic hardship, inattentive parents and forced to live as an adult, including sexually, when he is not ready for it yet. The child tries to become the parent. The child holds the moral right. Mister’s mom solicits blowjobs in order to afford food for the children. A neighbor, claiming to look after Pete, instead sexually abuses him. But Mister and Pete are not perfect either. Mister initiates a kiss with an adult woman, despite her role as a motherly figure, trying to help them out. When Mister and Pete see a masked robbery, their instincts aren’t to report it, but to emulate it. The difference is they steal to find food and money (survival), whilst the masked robbers are interested in flatscreen TVs (luxuries).
We see the difference between rich and poor accentuated. Mister can quote the dialogue of Trading Places (1983); he has the aspirations of being in the big city. The very men who solicit his mom for sex work are in suits and in offices. The out-of-town supermarket, with its luxuries of bagged apples, stands as a contrast – massive yet empty; self-service checkouts.
Their neighborhood is littered with drugs and crime. Police cars seem to be there at every second. A big, brutish police officer, stripped of emotion through his sunglasses, even chases down a young boy. But the film seems to suggest this is, in part, an imagined reality. Mister fears a police car is coming for him, but it drives down on the street past him. Every time a police officer knocks on his door, he and Pete hide, worried for their safety. Later, when they are taken in, they’re not arrested. Pete is safe in rehab. Mister gets reunited with his mom whose life seems to have turned around. The police officer takes off his sunglasses, revealing he is just as human as Mister. Somehow, this feels wrong. Were his mom to vanish without a trace to never come back, it would be much more poignant, more realistic, and a message to how much the system fails people. But it’s just a big, quirky misunderstanding!
When Ta Nehisi-Coates speaks of how black police officers are complicit within a racist system in Between the World and Me (2015), this seeming message that black police officers can be trusted despite how scary they seem to a child loses all weight.