We Grown Now, the poignant third feature film by director Minhal Baig, follows the story of two protagonists, Malik (played by Blake Cameron James) and Eric (played by Gian Knight Ramirez). These best friends, who live in the Cabrini-Green homes of Chicago, have a unique game they like to play. They start by pilfering mattresses from an empty apartment in their building and then push them down the stairs since the elevators rarely work. They drag the mattresses across the street to the playground and stack them in a corner of the concrete park. Once arranged to their liking, the boys prepare to “fly” by jumping onto the mattresses.
Taking off is the easy part for Malik and Eric, but it’s staying in the air right before their bodies collapse into the plush mattresses that proves to be a challenge.
Minhal Baig, known for her sophomore feature Hala, a film that delves into the struggles of a young Muslim woman, brings her delicate perceptiveness to the harsh reality of the Cabrini-Green homes. These buildings, originally built in 1942 to house World War II veterans, were once a model of public housing. However, in the 1950s, management neglect caused the place to fall into disrepair. Over the years, poorly constructed extensions were added, isolating the neighborhood from the surrounding area. The Chicago Housing Authority stopped maintaining Cabrini-Green, turning it into a symbol of broken promises in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Baig sets the film in 1992, and Malik and Eric, both born and raised in Cabrini-Green, experience their neighborhood as a maze of red brick buildings. Inside the individual apartments, however, warmth and intimacy blossom, evident through shots of Malik’s living room and Eric’s kitchen. These warm-colored interior scenes contrast with the gray city streets, creating a visual representation of the beauty that can be found in the everyday lives of the residents.
We Grown Now moves at an unhurried pace, following Malik and Eric as they navigate elementary school, explore their neighborhood, and share secrets and dreams. However, the film’s lack of a strong narrative poses a challenge. The relaxed approach to storytelling puts pressure on a few dramatic moments, and without much specificity in the screenplay, it’s difficult for the audience to emotionally invest in the characters. The adult characters, including Malik’s mother Dolores (played by Jurnee Smollett), his grandmother Anita (played by S. Epatha Merkerson), and Eric’s father Jason (played by Lil Rel Howery), also lack deeper development.
The film revolves around two significant events: the fatal shooting of one of the boys’ classmates, based on the real-life death of seven-year-old Dantrell Davis, and Dolores’ promotion at work. These events bring tension to the neighborhood as it becomes increasingly swarmed by police officers conducting intrusive searches. Additionally, Malik struggles with the news of his mother’s new job, fearing that it will change his relationship with Eric and raise questions about the future of their friendship.
The film’s third act builds upon Malik’s fear and the impending physical distance between him and Eric. This heightened tension adds depth to their daily interactions, making every adventure tinged with melancholy. James and Ramirez deliver impressive performances, portraying the natural chemistry between two elementary school-aged kids navigating change. Their conversations, filled with specific words and emotions, showcase the potential of We Grown Now with a stronger narrative.
Overall, We Grown Now explores the challenges of childhood friendship and the complexities of growing up in a neglected neighborhood. Baig’s directorial vision captures the beauty in the ordinary, using warm colors and intimate shots throughout the film. While the lack of a sturdy narrative hinders the emotional investment in the characters and their stories, the performances of James and Ramirez shine through, reminding us that the hardest part of growth is often staying the course together.