We Grown Now

We Grown Now

2024, PG, 99 min. Directed by Minhal Baig. Starring Blake Cameron James, Gian Knight Ramirez, Jurnee Smollett, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lil Rey Howery.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 26, 2024

Growing up is hard wherever you are. Even the most charmed childhood will be pocked with the usual aches of a developing body and the uncertainties of a developing mind. But the 10-year-old boys doing the growing up in writer-director Minhal Baig’s thoughtful drama, Malik (James) and Eric (Knight Ramirez), have it harder than most, growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing project in 1992 at a time of high crime and institutional neglect. The real-life murder of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis, accidentally shot by a gang member as he was walking to school, propels their story forward, as Malik and Eric’s freewheeling run of the neighborhood is curtailed by nervous parents, and Malik’s mom Dolores (an exquisite Smollett, who also executive produced) in particular begins considering another path forward for her family.

Baig skillfully weaves the idea of migration throughout: in the way Dolores’ mother Anita (Merkerson) explains how she left Tupelo as a young woman, revealing just enough for us to read between the lines the reasons why; in the way Malik is so taken with a Walter Ellison painting, “Train Station,” his lively imagination conjures train whistles and rattling train cars to soundtrack his daydreams; and even in the way Malik is obsessed with jumping, with taking flight, and encourages the more timid and earthbound Eric to spread his own wings.

Achingly empathetic – there is so much grace in these performances – We Grown Now occasionally tilts a touch too capital-A Arthouse Film. (The generally effective score by Jay Wadley, heavy on the pizzicato strings and piccolo, can sometimes veer into territory I call “NPR picaresque.”) But We Grown Now has precisely two, pint-sized aces up its sleeve, its astonishingly expressive little-man leads. James and Ramirez wear their joy and their stress on their faces as big as a billboard – and that’s about as big as your heart will swell for these boys, too.

Stay through the credits to experience Chicago photojournalist Marc PoKempner’s portraits from the now-demolished Cabrini-Green – lyrical proof that a community is far more than its crime statistics.

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We Grown Now, Minhal Baig, Blake Cameron James, Gian Knight Ramirez, Jurnee Smollett, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lil Rey Howery

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