Thursday, May 23, 2024

“WE GROWN NOW”

THE STORY – In 1992 best friends Malik and Eric traverse the city of Chicago, looking to escape the mundaneness of school and the hardships of growing up in public housing. They soon find their unbreakable bond challenged when a tragedy shakes their community.

THE CAST – Blake Cameron James, Gian Knight Ramirez, S. Epatha Merkerson, Avery Holliday, Lil Rel Howery & Jurnee Smollett

THE TEAM – Minhal Baig (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes


October 1992: Bernard Rose’s horror film “Candyman” opens. The film – set and partially shot in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing complex – portrayed a dark, dangerous world of drugs, gangs, and murderous specters lurking around every corner. Days earlier, seven-year-old Dantrell Davis had been shot in the head while walking to school with his mother through the neighborhood. Cabrini-Green, already a symbol of urban blight, became infamous nationwide as a dangerous breeding ground for criminal activity. When watching Minhal Baig’s “We Grown Now,” set in Cabrini-Green during the latter half of 1992, you don’t see any of that. Instead, you see images of youthful abandon and longing: Children launching themselves into the air to jump on a pile of mattresses or staring at water stains on the ceiling as though they were stars. We also see families praying around the dinner table, parents poring over bills, and grandparents patching up clothes and curtains. “A place is the people,” says young Malik (Blake Cameron James) late in the film. In a way, Baig has made “We Grown Now” a method of reclaiming the narrative of Cabrini-Green on behalf of its residents, a moving tribute to the strength of the families who lived there and survived against all odds and societal pressures.

Despite his surroundings, Malik is a pretty happy-go-lucky kid. He often convinces his best friend Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez) to join him in activities that might get them in trouble and uses humor to weasel his way out of trouble with his mom, Dolores (Jurnee Smollett), whenever his younger sister tells on him. Eric’s dad, Jason (Lil Rel Howery), does his best to raise Eric properly, but he’s a single dad who relies on his eldest daughter, Amber (Avery Holliday), to look after Eric much of the time. After Dantrell’s murder, Dolores and Jason face a crossroads in their parenting journeys, forced to decide whether to continue raising their kids in Cabrini-Green or to seek a better life elsewhere. Meanwhile, Malik and Eric find their friendship put to the test as their different outlooks on life begin to clash.

The first thing about “We Grown Now” that will really strike you is the sound. Noise comes from all sides – people talking, children playing, doors closing, feet running, things sliding across the ground – and fully immerses you in the world in which Malik and Eric live. The second thing that will really strike you is the music. Jay Wadley’s plaintive score mixes strings and piano to create a feeling of warmth and wonder, beautifully capturing that moment in childhood when everything feels possible, the last moment before you realize you must grow up. Combined with Patrick Scola’s impressionistic cinematography, the film bucks every convention of stories set in the projects.

Under Baig’s watchful eye, the images acquire a poetic power that makes the film feel downright Malickian in the most unexpected setting for such a style. It works wonderfully, though, putting us right in the middle of a community of people who may be struggling but truly care for each other – only to pull the rug out from under us as the outside world starts intruding in the form of overzealous policing. Baig never lets things get too out of hand, but these scenes effectively turn the film’s visceral power from gentle poetry into violent aggression, chilling in all the best ways.

The third thing about “We Grown Now” that really strikes you is the quality of the performances. The naturalistic performance style – especially from the young leads – draws you in. James and Ramirez display remarkable maturity, keeping things subtle and never pushing for big moments. Smollett and Howery make their parents two sides of the same coin, finding different ways to express similar character traits. As Dolores’ mother, S. Epatha Merkerson radiates light. Her almost-regal bearing lends an air of authority to everything she does. Still, a late scene between her and Smollett is a career highlight for Merkerson, taking Baig’s sensitively written (if a bit on the nose) dialogue and making magic from it.

Baig’s screenplay contains many profound lines of dialogue that encapsulate the film’s themes in only a few words. While some of it can feel obvious, the dialogue never feels overly written, especially in the mouths of these performers. Every word feels like it comes from deep within the soul of the person speaking, giving the film an authenticity that makes it even more engrossing. Baig conducted dozens of interviews with former residents while writing the screenplay, and every frame of the film is packed with the kind of detail and deep feeling that only comes from first-hand experience. Throughout the film, Baig encourages the audience to do what she did in those interviews: Listen. Experience this world through the eyes of the people who lived it.

“We Grown Now” paints a stirring picture of a time and place and effectively reclaims it from the cultural narrative that has surrounded it for decades. It provides the residents of Cabrini-Green with a more well-rounded portrait of their lives than audiences have ever seen. It’s a stirring ode to the innocence of youth and the strength it takes to do what’s best that will leave you smiling through tears.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The magical realistic tone of Minhal Baig’s gently stirring coming-of-age film shines a warm light on a time and place usually seen as dirty and cold. The naturalistic performances keep the visual poetry grounded.

THE BAD - The dialogue can be a bit on-the-nose at times.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>The magical realistic tone of Minhal Baig’s gently stirring coming-of-age film shines a warm light on a time and place usually seen as dirty and cold. The naturalistic performances keep the visual poetry grounded.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The dialogue can be a bit on-the-nose at times.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"WE GROWN NOW"