Review: We Grown Now — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

In the ugliest of worlds, writer/director Minhal Baig has crafted a strikingly beautiful portrait of friendship and family bonds.

We Grown Now (Sony Pictures Classics)

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We Grown Now

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG

Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

Stars: Blake Cameron James, Gian Knight Ramirez, Jurnee Smollett, Lil Rel Howery

Writer/Director: Minhal Baig


A lovingly rendered testament to the persistence of childhood, We Grown Now follows two young boys as they navigate Chicago tenement life with a sense of innocent adventure and impish abandon worthy of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

In the ugliest of worlds, writer/director Minhal Baig has crafted a strikingly beautiful portrait of friendship and family bonds.

Malik and Eric (’tween actors Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez) have been friends practically since birth, having known only the deeply troubled universe that was Chicago in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Malik lives with his single mom, Eric with his widowed dad on separate floors of the infamous Cabrini-Green high-rise apartments, a collection of 16-story human warehouses notorious for crime, drugs, and general despair.

For Malik and Eric, though, Cabrini-Green is simply home. The development’s walls may be little more than bare concrete blocks, but the boys’ parents travail heroically to wrap them in warm, welcoming environs. In the paved-over playground, the kids pile old mattresses three and four deep to practice “flying”—jumping as high as they can and landing as dramatically as possible. In an abandoned apartment, they lie side-by-side on the floor, imagining the cracks in the ceiling are twinkling stars and swirling constellations.

And when days at their inner-city school become too intense, they’ll catch the L train downtown to find peace and quiet at, of all places, the Art Institute of Chicago, where they pause to contemplate the works of Monet, Cassatt, and most notably, Seurat, whose placid A Sunday on La Grande Jatte holds a special appeal to them.

Sometimes, just because they can, the two press their faces against the prison-like chain link fence that wraps around the high-rise’s communal balconies, hollering defiantly to an indifferent world.

“Don’t you forget us!” they holler.

“I exist!” they scream.

Despite their warm bond, like Tom and Huck, Malik and Eric are well-acquainted with the ways violence and hate can cruelly interrupt an impoverished childhood: Their tearful, fearful parents try to shield them from the awful reality of a seven-year-old who was shot and killed outside their school. But then comes the funeral, at which the young friends contemplate mortality in ways no child should have to. At 2 a.m. one night, the sanctuary of their homes is shattered by marauding Chicago cops who barge in and trash the places in search of illegal drugs.

Through it all, Malik and Eric display that special kind of resilience with which only children seem to be blessed. And best of all, they have each other — until the prospect of one of them moving away casts a dark cloud over the bond that has helped them keep their delicate, kids-only optimism in balance.

The two child actors are extraordinary; their understated, shrug-it-off demeanor and occasional moments of lump-in-your throat emotion are exhausting in the way all splendid screen acting is.  As the boys’ concerned parents, Jurnee Smollett (Eve’s Bayou, Birds of Prey) and sometime standup comic Lil Rel Howery (the resourceful TSA agent/best friend in Get Out) avoid overwrought hand-wringing, instead portraying a couple of people determined to instill in their children a sense that life’s brutal inequities are no excuse for falling to the wayside.

We Grown Now is far from a nostalgic memory piece, but it is sentimental all the same; a reminder that innocence is a lot more stubborn than you might think.

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