Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Apr 18, 2024 10:46 pm 
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Poetic sweetness and brutality blend in a subtle study of growing up Black in the Chicago projects

Here is a film about two young third generation diaspora African American boys that keeps the worst at bay because there is love, discipline, and Black culture. They are 10-year-old Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez). That is, until the realities of early Nineties life in the Cabrini-Green complex like the accidental (real life) murder of Dantrell Davis and brutal illegal police drug search of Malik 's apartment which he shares with his mother Dolores (Jurnee Smollett), his younger sister Diana (Madisyn Barnes) and his grandmother Anita (S. Epatha Merkerson). Eric lives next door with his widowed father Jason (Lil Rel Howery) and his older sister Amber (Avery Holliday).

An hour into the compact ninety-three minute feature, Malik must leave his school and his best friend when Dolores is offered a significant raise but must move the family to Peoria, Illinois to take it.

The writing, and the lovely ensemble acting of the two boys, soars in small moments of dialogue like talking and teasing and telling silly jokes that you have to cock your ear to catch - partly because the film is geared to its sound design, the constant noise of the city and the teeming Cabrini-Green complex, which was a nice place for veterans after WWII, then went downhill when poor Black people moved there and turned into a dangerous place of drugs and shootings. Malik and Eric are oblivious for the most part to these dangers and know no other world than the hum of the ambient noise all around them.

The lyrical beauty of the boys' prepubescent friendship is developed physically in two important sequences. In the opening segment they drag an abandoned mattress across a courtyard to where the kids' play a jumping game they call "flying" using large stacks of bedding. This may seem a little forcedly metaphorical, were it not for the spell woven by the two young actors. In the second sequence, Malik and Eric , normally very good boys (the morning Pledge of Allegiance is a serious moment each day; Eric's father tests his math skills), skip out of a boring nature educational film and take a ride on the El, winding up at a serious visit to the Art institute that shows us some of its most famous paintings (the Caillebotte, the Seurat), and one of the station with white people going on vacation and Black ones arriving from the South. They wonder why the white people think they need Red Caps to carry their bags. They don't realize how much their temporary disappearance will upset their parents.

This is a subtle and original film free of miserabilism and focused on the poetic innocence of a sweet friendship and African American culture reflected in closeness, firm parenting, and cooking that's warm and loving even when the fare is limited. The diaspora is closely felt in Malik's grandma's Tupelo, Mississippi origins. The innocence and sweetness is captured in the way James and Ramirez render their dialogue. The ugly side of life comes in Dantrell's death and funeral, then the imposition of checkpoints and ID's required of all Cabrini-Green residents, even the youngest; the devastatingly destructive police drug search of the innocent apartment of Malik's family; and finally the necessity of moving.

We know projects well from movies - including French ones: they have a strong sense of place and community even when they're violent and dangerous, and Malik's leaving Cabrini-Green with his mother, grandmother, and sister carries that with the far greater pain of separation from Eric in a life whose limitations mean they may never see each other again. They have repeatedly yelled through the wire fence "We exist!" But how well that will be known remains to be seen. What we know exists is this precious moment of childhood happiness and friendship despite America's evils.

The film was awarded the TIFF Changemaker Award when it premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. I see what a mistake I made to have missed Minhal Baig's 2019 Sundance-debuted, Apple-released feature,Hala, about a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager uncovering a secret about her family, and I'll have to catch up. Some elements of this picture are such as other family members are underdeveloped but the boys' dialogue and their delivery of it sing so much it compensates for everything. The score is understated. Sometimes there is a boys' height camera level that's Ozu-like. The beauty of this subtle film is to be both elegiac and hopeful. At its best moments this film is miraculous.

We Grown Now, 93 mins., debuted at TIFF Sept. 8, 2023 and showed also at Chicago, AFI, Santa Barbara and Miami festivals before opening April 19, 2024 in New York (Film Forum) released by Sony Classics Pictures. Soon coming to Apple TV. Metacritic rating: 77%.

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