We Grown Now (2024)

Jurnee Smollett plays a fierce, protective mother to her 10-year-old son in “We Grown Now.”

Life lessons movingly on display in ‘We Grown Now’

    It’s 1992, and two eager 10-year-olds from Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects dream of being “just like Mike,” flying through the air, going up, up and up. When you’re that age, it’s easy to envision, even when crime and abject poverty surround you. All they require is a soft place to land. To that end, Malik and Eric gather discarded mattresses from abandoned apartments, and stack them atop one another at the playground, leaping and tumbling as they compete to see who can soar the highest.

   It would be an ideal metaphor for life, except there are no soft landings in the real world. When you fall, it hurts – badly. It’s a hard lesson the children are about to learn in “We Grown Now,” Minhal Baig’s affecting coming-of-age tale about loss, sacrifice and those we leave behind as we rise ever upward. 

   In this time and place, when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are reaching their heights in the NBA, the kid with the most potential is Malik (Blake Cameron James), an exceptionally bright boy with a mother (Jurnee Smollett), grandmother (S. Epatha Merkelson) and little sister who love him dearly.

  For Malik, the sky’s the limit – literally. Looking up at a cracked, mold-stained ceiling, he sees stars and constellations. His lifelong buddy, Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), does not, at least not at first. Understandable, given the recent death of his mother and the toll it’s taken on an overextended father (Lil Rel Howery) working his fingers to the bone struggling to give Eric and his 18-year-old sister a better life. 

    The lesson here, and it’s a sugar-coated one, is that nothing can hold you down if you have friends and family who love you. Trite, I know, but for Baig, in her third go-round as a writer-director, it’s the essence of life. You sense her conviction in each moment of a film perfectly attuned to the profundity of those childhood friendships you cherish wherever life takes you. 

    She also rehabilitates Cabrini-Green’s reputation as a drug- and gang-infested hellhole inhabited by poor, desperate people with little hope. Some of that may be true, but in exhaustively researching its past and interviewing residents who lived in the now-razed buildings, it becomes clear it wasn’t the place that mattered, it was the people, a close-knit community that had its devotion severely tested in the wake of the 1992 shooting death of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis. 

   Baig, at the time a resident of Chicago’s North Side, remembers the tragedy well and shrewdly weaves it into her story, an intermingling of the real and the make-believe much like the inner workings of a small child’s mind. That’s why so much of “We Grown Now” feels utterly authentic, as we experience Cabrini-Green through the eyes of naive little boys who can’t begin to comprehend an ugly, grossly unfair adult world. 

   Malik hears his grandmother speak of the Great Migration and how it brought her and Malik’s grandfather north from Mississippi in hopes of freeing themselves from poverty and segregation. It didn’t work out as planned. Not at all. She need only glimpse the drab, cinder-block walls of the cubbyhole the Chicago Housing Authority calls an apartment to realize it. Still, she’s eternally grateful for a smart, responsible daughter and two precocious grandkids who mean the world to her. 

      Merkelson, fine, Emmy-winning actress that she is, enables Anita’s memories and unfulfilled dreams to resonate powerfully, as does Smollett as her daughter, Dolores, a true lioness who cares only about keeping her children safe and content, even if it means working for peanuts and serving them leftovers four nights in a row. She refuses to allow adversity to hold her back, despite the despair over Dantrell’s murder and a dehumanizing gestapo-like police assault on her home. 

     Never taking a backseat to the adults, James and Ramirez are charming and adorable as little men totally cool with where they live. After all, it’s the only home they’ve ever known. Sure, there are no trees, green fields, or secure places to explore, but the boys have something much better – their imaginations. They also have a willingness to learn about the world outside Cabrini-Green, as demonstrated during one of the film’s best segments when they decide to skip school and hop an El into the Loop, not to goof off, but to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. 

    The scene instantly took me back to the first time I entered the AIC, like Malik with my childhood bestie, and – just like the boys – was introduced to the awe-inspiring works of Monet and especially George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” It is as life-enriching for Eric and Malik as it was for me. You can’t help but be moved, and it won’t be the only time Baig touches the depths of your soul. 

    Like Eric and Malik, Baig consistently finds poetry and beauty in the mundane. As kids, we don’t appreciate how good we have it. Just ask Eric’s wise father, who implores his son to always remember to appreciate the moment. As the loss of his darling wife taught him, we forget time is precious and the people we love most can be gone in a flash. That includes your best friend when the desire to fly higher and higher sweeps him away on greater adventures in faraway places. 

     It’s a loss for sure. But it’s not a goodbye, more like an until we meet again, because the people who loved and shaped us the most never disappear from our lives entirely. They remain locked tight inside our hearts forever. 

Movie review

We Grown Now

Rated: PG for thematic material and language

Cast: Blake Cameron James, Gian Knight Ramirez, Jurnee Smollett, S. Epatha Merkerson and Lil Rel Howrey

Director: Minhal Baig

Writer: Minhal Baig

Runtime: 93 minutes

Where: In theaters, going wide April 26

Grade: A-


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