(director/writer: Minhal Baig; cinematographer: Patrick Scola; editor: Stephanie Filo; music: Jay Wadley; cast: Giovanni Chambers (Slug), David Folsom (CHA officer), Little Rel Howery (Jason), Gian Knight Ramirez (Eric), Blake Cameron James (Malik), Jurnee Smollett  (Dolores), Charles Tiedje (Police Officer), S. Epatha Merkensen (Anita); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Joe Pirro, Minhal Baig; Symbolic Exchange; 2023)

“Heartfelt coming-of-age film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Chicago native Minhal Baig (“Hala”/”Pretext”), a Black woman who went to Yale, is auteur of this heartfelt coming-of-age film set in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green public housing complex in the fall of 1992. The under-managed place was demolished in 2011 when it became a dangerous place with too much violence, too many broken things in the building that remain unfixed, and there’s too much of a police presence to not feel threatened.

It was built in 1941 to house World War II veterans. In the 1950s it was inhabited mostly by African-Americans coming here for a fresh start and its promise of being the gold-standard for public housing. But that promise was not realized. In recent times, it was known as the building where the original Candyman of 1992 was filmed.

The slice-of-life drama follows two playful and innocent adolescent best friends, Malik (James) and Eric (Ramirez), who are experiencing the joys and travails of living in such a large housing project.

The inventive kids remove mattresses from empty apartments and drag them outside to pile them up in the playground where they play a flying game of leaping on them they call “jumping.” 

Dolores (Jurnee Smollett) is the supportive Muslim mother of the 12-year-old Malik. She works at a low paying job, and worries about getting by financially. Her mother Anita (S. Epatha Merkensen), from Mississippi, lives with them in the cramped apartment and has a special bond with Malik and with his kid sister. Eric’s mom is missing, and he lives with his dad (Little Rel Howery) a less stable family life than Malik. 

The kids are wonderful, giving a joyful life to a film that could have been bleak if just focusing on the environment. But the story left me with mixed feelings, as it never had much to say that wasn’t obvious. Nevertheless its beautiful visuals fleshed out an intimate story that tells us something meaningful about living in poverty.

It played at the Toronto International Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 12/10/2023  GRADE: B