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'We Grown Now' imbues hope in a coming-of-age story in a Chicago housing project

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the 1980s and 90s, Chicago's now-demolished Cabrini-Green was a housing project notorious for crime and neglect. But critic Bob Mondello says a new movie called "We Grown Now" suggests that if you were growing up there, Cabrini could also be a place of warmth and poetry.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We hear best buddies Malik and Eric before we see them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW")

GIAN KNIGHT RAMIREZ: (As Eric) Are you even pushing it?

MONDELLO: Elementary school kids, they're dragging a mattress from an abandoned apartment to a playground several blocks away because, as Malik puts it...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW")

BLAKE CAMERON JAMES: (As Malik) In Cabrini-Green, there's only one rule on the playground. It don't matter how old you are, how much money you got, how big a tall or small. All that matters is if you can jump.

MONDELLO: And at this, Malik runs as fast as his legs can take him, past the jump-ropers on the hopscotchers, for a flying leap at a big pile of mattresses.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUD)

MONDELLO: Success as only an adolescent can measure it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW")

BLAKE: (As Malik) I was flying, man. That's the closest I got to God.

MONDELLO: Malik lives in a high-rise with his sister, mother and grandmother, and Eric lives with his dad and sister one floor up. Even on high floors, their apartment doors open not to hallways, but to open spaces with chain-link fencing, one of many money-saving shortcuts that make these apartments less than ideal in Chicago winters. But in spring, with filmmaker Minhal Baig leaning into the boys' exuberance, the chain-link proves good for shouting through.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW")

BLAKE: (As Malik) My name's Malik.

GIAN: (As Eric) And my name's Eric.

MONDELLO: And Malik's grandmother remembers when she moved here from Mississippi, the enclosures were gathering places.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW")

S EPATHA MERKERSON: (As Anita) Families would be out here with they kids, and they'd be treating this like a giant porch. Everybody knew each other's name.

MONDELLO: That is no longer true, even if the boys, blessed with the tunnel vision of adolescence, are too blissed out to notice. They are good kids. Even when they skip school, it's to take the El to the Art Institute of Chicago. But the year is 1992, and the death of a 7-year-old classmate, shot by a gang member, is about to constrict their lives in ways they're too young to understand. Malik returns home from skipping school to find his mother panicked.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW")

JURNEE SMOLLETT: (As Dolores) I'm over here worried sick.

BLAKE: (As Malik) Nothing happened.

SMOLLETT: (As Dolores) But Dantrell was killed. Malik, don't that mean anything to you? I can't keep you safe.

MONDELLO: Her fears are borne out when the city starts random apartment searches.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW")

SMOLLETT: (As Dolores) It's 2 o'clock in the morning. You're scaring the kids.

MONDELLO: But even as life in Cabrini-Green becomes untenable, "We Grown Now" continues to find moments of grace and beauty, and to cross up expectations of what kind of story it's telling - a story of family and friendship and trust, as Eric's dad tells his son when he has a tough decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW")

LIL REL HOWERY: (As Jason) You're not a baby anymore. You're grown now. And you know right from wrong. You got this, all right?

MONDELLO: Eric's adolescent eyes say he's not so sure, but grown comes early sometimes. And sad as that may be, in Baig's gentle, intimate "We Grown Now," it's also imbued with hope.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

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