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'We Grown Now' Review

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May 4, 2024
Tyler Banark
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“A place is the people.” Those are the last words shown on the screen of Minhal Baig’s latest film, We Grown Now. It’s a motif used in various other films that have followed the same vein, such as 2019’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco and 2021’s Belfast. To an extent, this philosophy is true, as landmarks can define many cities and towns, but the locals always make it what it is. In the case of We Grown Now, Baig shows off a part of the Windy City that’s rarely discussed outside of it: the now-deceased Cabrini-Green neighborhood.

To say Chicago was striving and thriving in 1992 would be a statement that could pose mixed responses. The Bulls were in their prime and Carlton Fisk was near the end of his stint with the White Sox. But above all, the city was in a tough spot with handling the crime-ridden Cabrini-Green neighborhood located on the Near North Side. Living within this area are best friends Malik and Eric (played by newcomers Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez, respectively). They go to school blocks away from their high-rise and dream of bigger things than the harsh reality they live in. They escape their troubles by jumping on a big pile of old mattresses at recess in a game they simply call “jumping” and, at one point, skip school to visit The Art Institute of Chicago.

In these scenes, We Grown Now paints a soulful look into the wonder and awe of Malik and Eric's experience as if it were something out of a Barry Jenkins movie. This inspiration is worn on the movie’s sleeve as the world slows down or stops altogether while they live in the moment and truly be what they are: kids. Jumping and visiting the art institute aren’t the wisest choices for their parents, but Malik and Eric do it anyway as it’s true escapism from their home lives.

Malik lives with his single mom Dolores (Jurnee Smollett), grandmother Anita, and little sister, Diana; meanwhile, Eric lives with his single dad Jason (Lil Rel Howery), and much older sister, Amber. The simple fact of where they live means that being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have serious consequences, with even the supposed good guys of the Chicago PD always toeing the line of morality. Although audiences never see the violence or chaos that runs amuck in Cabrini-Green (the movie is PG), Baig gives a clear idea of what’s going on. She filters these tragic truths as much as possible, and while it works to educate younger viewers safely, it also makes the movie feel a little too restrained.

One of Malik and Eric’s classmates was accidentally killed in a shooting. The shooting itself is seen through news footage, and we witness officers stampede at Malik and Eric’s school and enforce ID cards to all the residents of their high-rise. Even though they’re not sure how to feel in the moment, Malik and Eric both understand that it’s not unrealistic to think that could have been them.

It’s a double-edged sword to dance around the heavy subject matter. On one end, the great performances fill up the gaps in boldness. James and Ramirez give star-making performances with flawless chemistry that makes for one of the best on-screen youthful friendships in a long time. Howery proves he’s not solely a comedic performer, displaying some great dramatic chops. Smollett gives a powerhouse performance as a mother always on the brink of losing her sanity because of the jarring atmosphere but knows her kids will never learn from their mistakes unless she gets the lesson across correctly.

Countering those performances on the other end of the sword is the overt familiarity in the specific beats of this coming-of-age story. That also extends to the visuals as DP Pat Scola’s (also seen in Sing Sing later this year) soulful approach feels a bit copied from the aforementioned The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Faults aside, We Grown Now still has some powerfulness as it brings eyes to a part of an iconic city that’s unknown to outsiders. Unfortunately, the reception on the festival circuit hasn’t been as fervent as it should be, nor will it likely break out in theaters. But for those who venture out for something quieter during the summer movie season, there’s a lot to appreciate.

You can follow Tyler and hear more of his thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.

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