Two young boys, best friends Malik and Eric, discover the joys and hardships of growing up in the sprawling Cabrini-Green public housing complex in 1992 Chicago.

Chuck says:

There’s a sense of magic about Minhal Baig’s “We Grown Now,” a low-budget miracle of a movie that provides a sense of hope amidst a currently bleak cinematic landscape. Taking place in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green housing project, the film focuses on two young boys whose future is threatened at every turn. Yet their imagination helps them dream of something better, a life of possibilities away from the violence that surrounds them.

Both in fifth grade, Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez) go to school, play with their friends, get into trouble, and wonder about their futures, just as any 12-year-old does. Unfortunately, they must do so in an environment that is becoming increasingly violent. A drive-by shooting of a child provides a sobering wake-up call to all the residents, as do new security measures that make the complex seem more like a prison than a home.  This is never more apparent than when the apartment where Malik and his family lives is randomly ransacked by the police on evening on the grounds they are looking for drugs.

Baig uses a handheld camera during this sequence and others to provide the viewer with the character’s perspective as well as underscore the volatile, unstable nature of the boys’ lives. Much of the film is seen from their perspective, a great many of the shots angled upwards to replicate how they see the world as well as to emphasize their tiny stature in a great big world that threatens to crush them.

Yet, Malik and Eric possess a sense of spirit that can’t be crushed.  They look at the watermarked ceiling in an abandoned apartment where they hang out and see stars and other worlds. And during a day in which they play hooky, they jump on a subway train, look in wonder at the skyscrapers that surround them and visit the Art Institute, dazzled by the variety of visions and perspectives the building contains. To be sure, this is an improbable series of events, yet it’s something the viewer wants to believe is possible, the delighted, curious expressions on James and Ramirez’s faces selling the moment.

As Malik and Eric, James and Gian Ramirez drive the film, two fresh young performers whose bright faces light up the screen. Their unaffected performances provide the film with a sense of realism necessary for the film to work. Equally effective is the production design by Merje Veski who replicates the bland cinder block buildings, its drab colors and uniformity sucking the life out of those who were trapped there.

Solid support is provided by Jurnee Smollett and S. Epatha Merkerson as Malik’s mother and grandmother respectively, each bringing the necessary sense of strength to these proud women, each desperate for a better life. Lil Rel Howery is underused as Eric’s father, yet his presence is felt, especially during a conversation his character has with his son late in the film.

Baig knows full-well the story wouldn’t ring true if Malik and Eric weren’t affected by their environment. What occurs between them is, unfortunately, inevitable. Yet, the greater tragedy is how their outlook on life changes. While one hangs on to a sense of optimism, the other begins to believe in a bleaker outlook, one filled with dead ends and a deteriorating sense of self-esteem.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Jay Wadley’s deeply affecting score, one that captures the longing and desires of these two boys. This coupled with the sense of wonder and curiosity conveyed in James’ gaze proves haunting. “We” is most effective when it reminds us that, as a society, we have a responsibility to nurture every child’s hopes and dreams, that none are disposable or to be brushed aside. When Malik and Eric shout “I exist,” behind the fences that cage them in their home, this is a powerful declaration. Baig uses this as an indictment of a society that looks the other way when faced with the issues of poverty and racism. These two young men and millions like them, deserve better.

3 1/2 Stars



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