We Grown Now


Minhal Baig’s “We Grown Now” is a film masterfully tied to the emotive potential of place. A period piece centered in Cabrini-Green in the early ’90s, the film is as Chicago born and bred as the characters it loves throughout its runtime. Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez) are two young boys, best friends since birth as they say, living in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing project. They live their lives in the quotidian but nostalgic ways many kids do: going to school, eating dinner with their families, and entertaining themselves in all the moments in between (telling popsicle stick-type jokes and gathering mattresses to jump on). It’s this overall simplistic and grounded approach to childhood that makes “We Grown Now” poignantly charming and the development of its story all the more affecting. 

When tragedy strikes on the grounds of Cabrini-Green, a child’s life is lost in the crossfires of criminal activity, and the boys are forced to reckon with the psychic and physical consequences that are born in its wake. And so the title, “We Grown Now,” is less an observation of the process of aging and more a eulogy of lost innocence. It’s a document of Black life through the eyes of children who, on account of the sociopolitical factors of race and class, are forced to deal with adult problems and complexities far before their white counterparts. It’s a portrait of the beauty of youth and the heartening passion of childhood friendships but also a mournfully pointed finger at the fragility of these sacred pillars of upbringing.

However, “We Grown Now” is not overly saccharine or pitiful. It’s a film defined by streaks of sunshine and attentive detail to seemingly unremarkable moments of child life. Utilizing location at every feasible scale, from the wideness of the city of Chicago to the minuteness of frames hanging on cinder block hallways, Baig’s direction plays a symphony with your heartstrings at every turn. Romanticized images of Black girls hula hooping on tar-black pavement, close-ups of balls bounced against brick walls in bored, passage-of-time play, and hazy sunlight through school bathroom meetups (when you should be in class) recall the mundane with nostalgic reverence. 

The film’s geographical core of Cabrini-Green is the most infamous of Chicago’s many historied housing projects, and its filmic legacy is most likely to awaken memories of the dangerous, dilapidated corridors and crumbling, graffiti stained infrastructure in “Candyman,” a film that takes place in the same year of “We Grown Now.” While these are vastly different films, each laudable in their own right, their depictions are clear dichotomous representations of reputation and reality. Yet, “We Grown Now” doesn’t sidestep the underbelly of its locale. While utilizing it as a biographical moment in the lives of Malik and Eric, it also permits a full, real spectrum of its history: both the plague of crime’s collateral damage and the play and plainness of an overall happily lived life. Though Jay Wadley’s string-heavy score sometimes tips into oversentimentality alongside a few heavy-handed moments of dialogue, “We Grown Now” is largely firmly planted in authenticity.

Baig’s direction stays consistent even in the film’s plaintive moments. The swapping between low-set cameras of youth perspective, high-angle shots that emphasize small scale, and honed attention to minute details maintains the whimsy and wonder of childhood. These repeated conventions are applied with romanticism in the film’s highs and brushed with melancholy in its lows, maintaining the perspectives of the young boys with powerful consistency. 

James and Ramirez operate excellently as the film’s core duo, even as James’ Malik gets more of the main character treatment. The boys’ chemistry as best friends is believable between innocently playing the dozens and cutting class, musing on love and life with charming naivety, and even navigating the increasingly complex emotions that come with their disdainfully encroaching socio-political awareness. As Eric’s father, Lil Rel Howery displays an emotional range and palpability not typically attributed to his habitual comedic roles. Jurnee Smollett, as Malik’s mother, serves as the film’s contextual delivery of adulthood issues. Both depictions of these parental roles provide structure and color the film with a touching sense of protection, but “We Grown Now” belongs, unshakably and entrancingly, to the boys.

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