We Grown Now‘s Engrossing Drama Sees Kids Dream in Cabrini-Green

Movies Reviews Minhal Baig
We Grown Now‘s Engrossing Drama Sees Kids Dream in Cabrini-Green

When LaJoe Rivers—the mother of eight whose family lived in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes—gave Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here its title, she was pushing back on the idea that a story could be told about the children of the projects. “They’ve seen too much to be children,” she explained. But her boys, specifically Pharoah and Lafeyette, were still just kids. Yes, they were kids who lived next door to death, kids whose lives relied on the proper allocation of Chicago governmental funds more than any lives ever should. But they were kids all the same. We Grown Now works best when focusing on how the world cannot suppress this latter truth for its two young Black boys living in Chicago’s projects: Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), gradeschooler pals in Cabrini-Green. They goof off, talk back, tell jokes. When they skip out of class to ride the L downtown, Chicago welcomes and inspires them—for a moment so brief it could all have been a daydream. Writer/director Minhal Baig’s ‘90s coming-of-age drama is one of realistic warmth, rumbling hopes and roadblocks jutting up in front of children whose very existence is defiant.

Cabrini-Green is perhaps best known to non-Chicagoan audiences as the ruined setting for Candyman, which coincidentally came out in 1992, the same year We Grown Now is set. But Malik and Eric’s life rejects poverty-as-horror. There are no transposed Clive Barker ghouls here. Their building certainly contains some nasty spots, like the derelict apartment that serves as their personal secret base. And yes, violence (perpetrated just as tangibly by the state as by the drug dealers it ostensibly polices) could come crashing in at any hour of the night. But the community is deeper than that, the possible caricatures defined with the details so often denied them.

The kids are worn-out, not shellshocked husks. They reluctantly stand up and give the best Pledge of Allegiance recitation since Boyhood. One whispers about another’s hot-rod family car: a Toyota Corolla. When they return from school, Malik’s mom (Jurnee Smollett) and grandma (S. Epatha Merkerson) fill their home with love—hot meals and little jokes. Eric’s dad (Lil Rel Howery) kindly busts his balls. Even when Smollett and Merkerson’s lines sit too heavy, their closeness sells the lived-in relationship. James and Ramirez offer similarly winning, realistic turns. Their performances are understated, heartfelt, pushy and smug—little boys, energetic and pleased with themselves. Even Howrey, in a rare dramatic turn, bolsters the film with a bit of soft-spoken gravitas. The brief chemistry they share in their small portions of the high-rise gently builds out a whole world. They’re the ones making the cinderblock walls and tiny overhead lights into something that hurts to leave.

Baig’s camera does the same thing for the movie. Each image and sequence of We Grown Now vibrates with an energy and style befitting its subject’s inner life, moving and framing their exploits in an excitable flow. When Malik and Erik haul an abandoned mattress down to their impromptu playground, the camera holds still in a busted elevator’s corner, making their Sisyphean task all the funnier. When they finally lug the thing to asphalt, Baig hits the slo-mo, watching from below as the boys fly onto the newly designated crash pad. It’s full of imagination without being imaginary—the kind of hyper-real playfulness that makes adventures of the everyday. Many scenes stay tight on the boys, either tracking them or staring at their conversation, the depth of field barely extending past their faces. It’s their perspective we cling to, and their problems we wrestle with.

Most important for the boys—far more pressing than the atmospheric dangers of stray bullets or drug addiction—is sticking together. We Grown Now’s best scene is when they play hooky, hopping the train to the Art Institute. They goad each other, harmlessly trying on a sleeping man’s hat and flirting with a pretty woman, and are in awe alongside one another. When they arrive at the museum, the pair are struck by Walter Ellison’s migratory Jim Crow painting Train Station, a riveting picture especially for Malik, whose grandparents left the south for Chicago. Malik may be moving soon too, to the suburbs where his mom’s job prospects beckon. But he’ll try not to think about that just yet.

This engrossing fantasy, dreamt by kids who think (like all kids) that they’re invincible, comes crashing back down to earth soon enough. Practicalities, worries, concerns about the future all get in the way. The boys are punished for running off in the middle of the day without telling anybody, worrying everybody sick, by parents who are put in a terrible position: They want to protect children they know to be in a precarious spot, but that protection conflicts with all the things a city has to offer. There’s more to Chicago than Cabrini-Green, but not for these two. Not just now. Maybe not ever.

This tragedy is slowly built out, its sadness emerging from the cracks in their lives. It peeks its head through the struggling gaps in the straightforward slice-of-life plotting. It settles in when you realize the ever-present soundscape—the underlying thrum of voices, banging fists and pots, boombox beats, dripping faucets—is about intimacy, good and bad. At any moment, a gunshot could tear through this communal lack of sonic privacy, and everyone would know. So much is shared in Cabrini-Green, but especially the danger. It’s a dignified approach, not one that’s sight-seeing or pornographic.

Baig coaxes these themes from her worldbuilding, from the hazy light heating up the film’s yellows and reds and tans. It’s present in compellingly simple dream sequences, evoked through the impressive audiovisual choreography of the theater, that transport you to Malik’s unreality, one that’s more projection than imagination. She also, in the movie’s least refined moments, puts this task on her actors through clunky dialogue. 

These self-conscious lines plop out like they’re filling leaden speech bubbles. The visual poetry, condensed into inelegant voiceover—or worse, into characters lamely announcing their deepest feelings—becomes distancing to the point of embarrassment. It’s like trying to tell someone about part of a song that made you cry. The very act of articulating it feels like a silly betrayal of real emotion. Behind the words, a string-dense score can overbear as an emotional guide. If you don’t already get that cops trashing a family’s apartment at 2 AM is a violent tragedy perpetrated by the main authorities in their lives…well, no amount of swelling music will make the point stick. And yet you want to forgive the clumsiness because We Grown Now has already successfully made its characters your neighbors.

We Grown Now doesn’t avoid violence or obscure hardship, but works around them much like its characters. That’s its strength: Making all facets of Cabrini-Green fit into an engrossing, child-sized (child-seen) story. Last year, a pair of coming-of-age movies about broke Black families (Brother and A Thousand and One) saw their friction-filled realism dragged down by portentous scripts. It’s not that We Grown Now is more palatable because it avoids tough topics, or dodges the encompassing misery that so often dominates the movies that cover them. It doesn’t even entirely avoid dipping a toe into pomposity. But it does allow its children to be children, persisting through a life that’s still too familiar.

Director: Minhal Baig
Writer: Minhal Baig
Starring: Blake Cameron James, Gian Knight Ramirez, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lil Rel Howery, Jurnee Smollett
Release Date: April 19, 2024

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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