'We Grown Now' Finds the Poetry but Loses the Grit

Directed by Minhal Baig

Starring Blake Cameron James, Gian Knight Ramirez, S. Epatha Merkerson, Avery Holliday, Ora Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Jurnee Smollett

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

BY Leina GabraPublished May 8, 2024


"A place is the people" flashes on a black screen at the end of We Grown Now, Minhal Baig's third feature film. This message drives Baig's writing and directing, which gently and artfully portrays the tragedies, hardships and moments of beauty in Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing project in 1992 through the eyes of two young boys, Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez). Although Baig and cinematographer Pat Scola make the tale beautiful, We Grown Now leans slightly too heavily on style and mood, rather than on a sense of authenticity that would bring this the message home.

There is a clear before and after in this tale: before seven-year-old Dantrell Davis is shot and killed near Malik and Eric's school, and after. The tragic murder of Dantrell Davis is a true story that encapsulates the rise in gang shootings at Cabrini-Green, but Dantrell is not the focus of the story. In fact, his character's face does not appear in the film at all.

Instead, his death is the cataclysmic event that takes Malik and Eric from telling each other corny jokes and debating the Chicago Bulls to confronting the finality of death and, for Malik, the pain of leaving home even as he knows there are greener pastures ahead.

Dantrell's murder not only highlights the escalating violence at Cabrini-Green, but also increases the tension between the police and the buildings' residents. First, the cops begin to require all residents to show identification to enter the housing project, and, soon after, they conduct invasive drug searches throughout the residents' apartments. Baig shows no restraint in these moments, portraying Malik and Eric's confusion, anger, fear and sadness as their homes become akin to jail cells.

Despite the plot's potential, a palatable lack of realness removes the audience from Malik and Eric's world. The characters' dialogue, particularly that of the film's grown-ups, is sometimes trite. For example, Eric's father Jason (Lil Rel Howery) has only one meaningful scene, delivering a monologue riddled with clichés: "We don't get a lot of time here on Earth," "Tomorrow is not promised," and other similar platitudes.

Similarly, Malik's grandmother (S. Epatha Merkerson) often speaks too poetically to connect with. Aptly, at one moment, she state,: "There's poetry in everything." And, despite moments of well-written childlike banter between the film's two main characters, several of Malik and Eric's conversations about death, home and friendship are too philosophical for such young children.

However, Scola does a fine job of finding the "poetry in everything" with his artistic choices. Lighting up Cabrini-Green's interior shots with soft orange hues, the housing project shines beautifully, reflecting the characters' nostalgic perception of the place. Scola's shots are creative and unique; he shoots from underneath tables and between two rooms, bringing out the unique personality of the space.

Baig approaches this true story with heart and meticulous consideration. Baig's commitment to beautiful, visual storytelling is apparent despite the often too-theoretical dialogue. Ultimately, We Grown Now is a touching, if somewhat contrived, portrayal of childhood innocence lost to tragedy.

(Mongrel Media)

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