Producers: Joe Pirro and Minhal Baig   Director: Minhal Baig   Screenplay: Minhal Baig   Cast: Blake Cameron James, Gian Knight Ramirez, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lil Rel Howery, Jurnee Smollett, Ora Jones and Charles Jenkins   Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: C+

Minhal Baig’s coming-of-age drama, set in Chicago’s notoriously crime-ridden Cabrini-Green high-rise public housing project in 1992 (the fiftieth anniversary of the hopeful opening of its first units) is, contrary to what one might expect, not primarily gritty and grim (though there are moments that can be characterized as such), but lyrical and poetic.  In fact, one could make a case for considering it an urban version of David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” (2000), which was set in rural North Carolina but also spun a “growing up” scenario and embraced a similarly dreamlike style with occasional dark interventions.  Like that film, “We Grown Up” also has a habit of becoming gauzy and pretentious as it makes the point that what one should remember about the Cabrini-Green development isn’t its failure as urban planning, but the people who struggled to make a life there.

The youngsters at the film’s center are Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), inseparable best friends both in the classroom and on the playground, where they and the other kids practice “flying” by jumping from a height onto a mound of pilfered mattresses and pillows, just one instance of the script’s somewhat heavy-handed symbolism.  Malik’s family includes his hard-working mother Dolores (Jurnee Smollett), his widowed grandmother Anita (S. Epatha Merkerson) and a younger sister; Eric lives with his recently-widowed father Jason (Lil Rel Howery) and an older sister, Amber (Avery Holliday).  Dolores has a job in the payroll department of a business, where she watches others promoted over her, while Anita remembers how different things had been at the projects when she and her husband moved to Chicago from Mississippi; Jason works at a pizza joint, tries to teach his son the economics of getting by, and expects Amber to watch over her younger brother.

It’s a time of increasing turmoil at Cabrini-Green.  The killing of a seven-year old boy in a shooting while he was walking with his mother causes a public outcry and a police response that involves random screening of people and even unannounced apartment searches.  The funeral makes the boys, as well as their elders, uneasy about the precariousness of things.  Dolores applies for a promotion, only to learn that it would involve uprooting the family and moving to Peoria.  Yet she’s torn between staying and leaving.

Malik, meanwhile, grows dreamier, imagining living in a two-story house with a garden.  When the boys stare at a cracked ceiling, he suggests that the flickers of light from the other side resemble stars, as if the sky offered them escape.  And when the boys decide to ditch school when the teacher plays an especially dull educational film, they run off to the Art Institute, where, in addition to taking in a Seurat exhibition, they intently examine Walter Ellison’s 1935 canvas “Train Station,” which depicts a segregated Southern terminal in which “coloreds” are boarding trains headed north while well-heeled whites, on the other side of the platform, mount cars going elsewhere—part of the Great Migration in which Anita took part.  At one point it’s observed that “There’s poetry in everything,” and more and more Baig indulges the idea in her images.

She also feels compelled to make the message of her film overly explicit, most notably in a scene in which the boys, peering through a chain fence, shout to those on the other side—police, presumably, but also society as a whole—“We exist!”  It’s only the most obvious instance in which Malik and Eric sound ore like adults than ten-year olds. And yet while at such points the film becomes uncomfortably heavy-handed, James and Ramirez remain unaffected and natural.  Smollett, Merkerson and Howery are all excellent as well, capturing the tenderness they feel toward the children as well as their concerns about sheltering them from harm while making ends meet.   Production designer Merje Veski and cinematographer Pat Scola have the difficult task of balancing the reality of the surroundings with the more graceful perspective of the children but succeed more often than not, while editor Stephanie Filo gives the film an unforced, deceptively idyllic pacing and Jay Wadley contributes a score that aims for soulful nostalgia.

Ultimately, of course, “We Grown Now” must come to terms with the separation that often marks the onset of maturity as Dolores decides on her job choice.  In doing so, it closes with another instance in which it exchanges gentleness for the obvious as Eric, who’s become moody and depressed over his friend’s imminent departure, imparts to Malik the secret of success at flying.  It’s unfortunately typical of this generally insightful film that at too many points it strains for profundity when its simpler moments prove much more affecting.