There’s a game that Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), the protagonists of Minhal Baig’s poignant third feature, play We have grown now, like to play. It starts with the theft of mattresses from an empty apartment in their building. They push her down the stairs because the elevators don’t normally work; Then they drag her across the street to the playground. They stack the beds in a corner of the concrete park and once they are arranged to their liking, the boys prepare for flight.
For the two best friends who live in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green homes, taking off is the easiest part. Staying on course once they’re in the air, the seconds before their bodies fall into the plush, proves a challenge.
We have grown now
Could have taken off with a more grounded narrative.
In her second feature film HalaBaig created a portrait of a young Muslim woman grappling with the constraints of her religion and the realities of being a teenager. The film, which premiered at Sundance, showcased Baig’s directorial vision – a perspective that favored intimate and closely observed moments. With We have grown nowBaig brings this subtle perception to a space plagued by a bad reputation.
The Cabrini-Green Houses, a group of towering apartment buildings and townhouses, were built in 1942 to house veterans of World War II. They were once a model of public housing, but in the 1950s, as more African Americans moved in, the building fell into disrepair due to management neglect. A series of poorly constructed expansions followed, and the neighborhood became a monastery of concrete buildings, isolated from the surrounding area. The Chicago Housing Authority has all but stopped maintenance, and in the late 1990s and early 1990s Cabrini-Green was a symbol of broken promises.
Baig shoots her feature film in 1992. Born in Cabrini-Green, Malik and Eric experience their neighborhood as long walks to elementary school, trying to fly as high as possible, and running back and forth between indoor patios for news and deliver dinner. In collaboration with cameraman Patrick Sola, Baig depicts the housing projects as a labyrinth of red brick buildings and individual apartments as security zones.
Shots of the building’s interiors – Malik’s living room or Eric’s kitchen, for example – are infused with a palette of warm colors. They contrast with the gray of the city streets and confirm that intimacy blossoms inside the concrete structures. Baig is adept at looking and looking in We have grown now She unfolds the dynamics of her perspective. She peers out from between the rust-tattooed legs of a dining room table or between the diamonds of a chain-link fence to observe these families’ routines. The result is a film that takes the idea of beauty seriously and shows us with deceptive ease the small joys that make up life in Cabrini-Green.
We have grown now moves at a leisurely pace, lazily following Malik and Eric as they rise to the Pledge of Allegiance, pass notes during class, talk about their neighborhood and trade secrets and dreams. There’s not much that gets in the way of a narrative, and We have grown now has problems as a result. The laid-back approach to storytelling puts pressure on a handful of dramatic moments. For most of the film, Baig’s script lacks the specificity to transform his characters into characters worth emotionally investing in. The Adults – Jurnee Smollett plays Malik’s mother Dolores, S. Epatha Merkerson plays his grandmother Anita and Lil Rel Howery plays Eric’s father Jason – Don I don’t have much to work with either. Their personalities remain comparatively superficial.
The film’s plot revolves around two pieces of news: a fatal shooting of the boy’s classmate – based on the real-life death of seven-year-old Dantrell Davis – and Dolores’ promotion at work. Both events change the structure of Malik and Eric’s daily lives. Tension is in the air as their neighborhood becomes increasingly infested with police carrying out indiscriminate, intrusive house searches. And the announcement about his mother’s new job sends Malik into a state of denial and worry about his relationship with Eric. He begins to wonder: What happens to a friendship when a person moves?
We have grown now picks up steam as the third act builds around Malik’s question. He is afraid and avoids telling Eric for a long time that he is leaving Cabrini-Green. The threat of physical distance raises the stakes of their daily interactions. Suddenly, every adventure – including a particularly tender trip downtown after school ends – is colored by the melancholy of the finale.
James and Ramierez are impressive in these moments. The two have the natural chemistry of elementary school-aged children coping with changes for which they don’t yet have a language. Malik and Eric argue, sulk and seek advice from their parents: these conversations, anchored in concrete words and feelings, show something We have grown now could have been with a sharper story. Looking back, we see the two friends discovering what they mean to each other. Sometimes the hardest part of growth isn’t getting started, but rather staying on track together.