Review | ‘We Grown Now’: Nothing shy in this Chi-Town

(2.5 stars)

“We Grown Now” is a handsome, heavy-footed nostalgia piece that takes place in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing project in October 1992, when the neighborhood became infamous as the setting of two horrors. The first was the killing of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis, who was shot as he walked to school. Then, just three days later, Cabrini-Green was featured as the backdrop of “Candyman,” a cult flick about a vengeful spirit who stalks the complex.

Written and directed by Minhal Baig, “We Grown Now” touches on the former and skips the latter, a hint that she isn’t capturing a moment as much as pruning it to her interests. The filmmaker only wants to view this world through the sentimental lens of two boys, Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), who don’t yet realize that Dantrell’s death will lead to the dissolution of their friendship and the demolition of their 16-story tower. It’s a simple, gentle tale that’s told beautifully but feels hollow — like a eulogy for an acquaintance.

Malik and Eric’s story starts with a strong opening sequence where the kids drag an abandoned mattress down 12 flights of stairs to the playground. Straightaway, we’re taken in by the noise and energy of their block: the sounds of squeaky shoes and honking horns, the vicarious joy of watching children tumble gymnastically over the camera to land on a heap of tires and springs. But Baig, who was born in Chicago, is trying to shoehorn a semi-authentic drama into her reverie. Too soon, her young leads settle down into forced conversations about life, art, death and their own futures. Malik, the slightly sweeter of the pair, waxes that he dreams of a two-bedroom house where his mom (Jurnee Smollett) can grow her own tomatoes, a hobby she never claims to want herself. I didn’t buy it at first — what 10-year old prioritizes a garden over any other fantasy? — and I believed it even less after the script repeated it two more times.

This is a snapshot type of film that’s more about mood than momentum. The dialogue is all thesis statements. When three generations of characters all talk pretty much the same — “One of these days, he’s going to get killed,” “This neighborhood’s just not the same anymore,” “They treat us like roaches in our own home” — that’s just the voice of the writer. Don’t get me started on the two times the boys bellow into the sky: “We exist!”

Still, cinematographer Pat Scola has a great eye. At least half a dozen shots are flat-out fantastic, and we visually pick up on everything we need to know about Malik’s roots in the building by the fact that his grandmother (S. Epatha Merkerson) managed to drill dozens of framed family portraits into their apartment’s cinder block walls. The lens casts such a warm glow over everything that a close-up of a heap of pencil shavings could practically start a fire. All the while, the score’s violins command attention, at first frolicking like gulls that just swooped in from Lake Michigan, then doing their utmost to add emotional oomph to a slender plot.

In the most memorable sequence, Malik and Eric play hooky and head downtown to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, just as Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye did before them. It’s a sharp and playful provocation. Don’t these lower-income boys deserve a day off, too? Absolutely — but did they have to pose in front of the same Georges Seurat?

The contrast between the two directors’ styles is telling. In “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” John Hughes cuts between Cameron’s blank expression and an impressionist oil portrait of a child, using visual language to say that Cameron feels blurry, too. Baig is more declarative. Her kids instead turn to the artist Walter Ellison’s painting of a train station and spend a full minute commenting on its socioeconomic power dynamics.

Baig is being sincere when she insists that a place is made by its people. If only her version of Cabrini-Green felt inhabited by actual people. As the end credits roll, we enjoy vintage photographs of its former residents now scattered to the wind. These old faces have a candor we could use more of in the film.

PG. At area theaters. Thematic material and language. 93 minutes.

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