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‘We Grown Now’ Review: Minhal Baig Lovingly Tells a Lyrical Friendship Tale Set in 1990s Chicago

Client: Minhal Baig – Writer, Director

Writer-director Minhal Baig knows how to observe youthful rhythms delicately. As she demonstrated with her 2019 sophomore feature “Hala,” about a young Muslim girl’s daily life and dilemmas at the intersection of culture, religion and teenage anxieties, Baig has a textured, refreshingly unfussy way of perceiving coming-of-age stories, favoring intimate moments over explosive ones, with an assured handle on a sense of time and place.

Baig is in fact so gentle with her touch that you might, at first, mistakenly label her directorial style as underpowered. But as you sit longer with the silent grip of her films, the tenderness of her eye is what lingers. That sensibility is chiefly at the heart of her third feature, “We Grown Now,” a thoughtful and serenely paced Chicago-grown tale, following the ebbs and flows of a childhood friendship. With immersive beats and warm-hued visuals that sneakily envelop you, it’s the kind of evocative film you just comfortably slip into.

Playing best friends Malik and Eric, terrific young co-stars Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez introduce us to the unassuming world of “We Grown Now” right at the start, as they push an old mattress down their Cabrini-Green apartment block’s staircase. It’s the fall of 1992 and their home — in the very same building complex featured in “Candyman” and portrayed in the 2014 documentary “70 Acres in Chicago” — abuts a playground where they drag old mattresses for a jumping game they’ve invented. The kids (in a not-so-subtle piece of writing by Baig) call it flying, perhaps all too eager to quickly grow a pair of their own wings to spread.

As sweetly pure as their games might be, their unjust environment sadly forces incidents onto them that no child should have to witness. In one of those devastating events, a young classmate of the duo gets murdered. (The case is based on the true-life killing of the 7-year-old Dantrell Davis, who was accidentally shot on his way to school.) In another, Malik shivers in fear when police officers cruelly storm his home during a random and unlawful search, rattling his sister, hardworking mom Dolores (Jurnee Smollett) and grandmother Anita (S. Epatha Merkerson) in the middle of the night. We quickly grasp that this sort of thing isn’t unusual in Cabrini-Green, a once-promising place that provided Anita an escape route from the bigoted South, now a housing project burdened by socio-economic troubles and racism.

Still, this is not a story saddled by miserabilism — through a dignified lens and point-of-view, Baig is careful not to confuse social realism with doom and gloom. In that, her focus remains on Malik and Eric’s friendship and the rich colors of their innocence as the kids go to school together, share their dreams with one another and steer the demands of the adults who take care of them. Among that group is Eric’s dad Jason, played by Lil Rel Howery, who manages to leave a memorable impression despite an underwritten part.

For a while, Haig doesn’t provide much of a storyline in “We Grown Now.” Instead, she gracefully portrays this specific slice of Chicago, using earthy colors in the cozy interiors and juxtaposing the gray outdoors with the vibrancy of the neighborhood and occasional dapples of sun. She also patiently builds Malik’s family life: His is a loving home where cheesy puns are often exchanged with laughter and modest meals are lovingly shared around the kitchen table.

While the energy of the film inevitably drops due to a brief sense of aimlessness, a defining turning point in “We Grown Now” eventually arrives through Dolores, as she ponders the pros and cons of going for a promotion at her job. Navigating her dilemma insightfully, Baig spells out Dolores’ quandary with precision and empathy. As a woman of color in business, will she get punished for asking for more? Should she keep her head low and just be grateful for the little that she has? Thankfully, Dolores gears up the courage to go for it and does get the promotion she’s long deserved, a career advancement that requires her to move out of Chicago and Cabrini-Green. Of course, this would also mean the separation of Malik and Eric.

The kids grapple with the news via differing shades of unease, with Malik wrestling with unspoken feelings of guilt he can’t articulate, and Eric struggling with the anxiety of getting left behind. Still, the kids search for ways to hold onto the time they’ve left together, skipping school, visiting a museum and defiantly screaming “I exist” from the rooftops in deeply emotional moments. James and Ramirez both bring an extraordinary sense of resolve and wisdom to their respective roles, a kind of actorly maturity well beyond their years, accompanied and elevated by Jay Wadley’s melancholic score. Even in its quietest moments, “We Grown Now” feels alive through the kids’ joint triumphant spirit and Baig’s discernible love and care for them.


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