No one’s story is a simple one, and writer-director Minhal Baig’s third feature “We Grown Now” takes care to depict her main characters — two boys growing up and then growing apart in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing projects in 1992 — as alert, multilayered individuals with many tales inside them.

Baig is like that, too. Now 34, she grew up in a Pakistani American Muslim household in Rogers Park, attending high school at Northside College Prep, which she used to film many scenes from her second, semi-autobiographical feature, “Hala” (2019), made by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production company and now streaming on Apple TV.

When I first saw “We Grown Now” prior to its U.S. premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, it struck me not just as a vital and beautiful addition to the list of key Chicago-made movies about Chicago, but as a film staking out its own style of poetic realism.

From the beginning, her short films looked like a million and paid attention, without undue slickness. Now Sony Pictures Classics has paid attention, too, distributing “We Grown Now” for a commercial release scheduled for spring 2024.

“When I was growing up,” Baig told me, “I’d always see that blue logo screen for Sony Pictures Classics come up and I knew I was in for something good. So I feel so fortunate, (co-presidents) Michael Barker and Tom Bernard seemed to understand exactly what we were going for with our movie.”

After the sold-out Oct. 11 CIFF screening, Baig told festival artistic director Mimi Plauché that the child’s-eye-view perspective informing “We Grown Now” was meant to dramatize, simply, that “these lives should never feel too small to be on a big screen.”

I talked with Baig in the newly acquired Hyde Park apartment she shares with her Los Angeles-based husband, film production executive Michael Finfer. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: So, you came back. You live here now, mostly? 

A: Yeah. My father passed in 2013. It’s strange to think how it’s been a decade now. I was working in L.A. at the time and moved back for what I thought was going to be one summer. It ended up being two years. During that time I was wrestling with my father’s death, and realizing we all have a short amount of time, however short that turns out to be. Time to do things. Make things. So my film “Hala” came out of that.

“We Grown Now” came out the experience with my siblings, trying to figure out what to do with our family home, the first home my father bought in Rogers Park. My family still owns it, but it was hard to live there after he passed. I wanted to explore this idea of home but not in an immediately autobiographical way, which I had done with “Hala” (which deals with a Pakistani Muslim teenager’s final year in a Chicago high school). I needed to deal with a perspective that was not my own this time.

After college, I moved back to Chicago, and by that time the last Cabrini-Green high-rise had been demolished, in 2011. I started reading Ben Austen’s book “High-Risers,” which tracks the rise and fall of Cabrini-Green. Ben was one of the first people I talked to about getting in touch with Cabrini-Green residents, and talking to them about what the place meant to them.

I started hearing all these stories about everyday life there. One of the people I interviewed, Tremayne Johnson, he was a child there in the ‘90s, and he talked about mattress-jumping and ditching school, and then he invited me to interview his whole family. They were there the other night at the festival screening. His family lived there for multiple generations, and had migrated up from Mississippi. So the interviews and all the research took several years.

Q: Did you face any skepticism from folks about an outsider coming in to tell a Cabrini-Green story?

A: I think the Cabrini-Green community, which remains really strong and connected, has a justifiable wariness of representation that feels like exploitation. When I started the process of interviewing, I expected some initial resistance. But pretty much everyone I spoke to shared their stories. They were mostly just curious: Why do you want to hear about my life in the ‘90s in Cabrini-Green? It helped that I’m from Chicago. Even though I’d been away a long time, after my father passed, I’d been coming back a lot the last five or six years, for work and for family reasons.

Q: Can you run through your timeline for me? 

A: Graduated from Northside College Prep in 2008, then graduated from Yale in 2012. I majored in fine arts. And painting. I studied playwrighting, too, and thought that might be my career path. But I always saw theater as a ladder I didn’t know how to climb. I wanted to find a way to marry writing with visual storytelling and film felt like the right medium. In LA, I worked in the mailroom at United Talent Agency, and then worked as assistant to a TV literary agent. I don’t think I lasted seven months.

Q: Why was that?

A: I wasn’t a bad assistant, I just felt my soul being, you know, crushed. Slowly. I’m a person who has to achieve in whatever I set my heart on, so if I decided to be a development executive or a producer I’d go at it as hard as possible. But I just couldn’t see myself happy there. All those aspiring artists in the midst, assistants, people in the mailroom, everyone with a desire to write or direct, hoping to parlay what they had into something more. And I realized this wasn’t parlaying into anything for me (laughs). So I left to do my own thing.

Around Thanksgiving that year, 2012, I received word that my father wasn’t doing well. So I left L.A. to come back to Chicago. And then he passed the following April. Two years after that I went back to L.A., with the intention of making a movie. Because by then I’d written “Hala.” (Her first movie was the micro-budget “1 Night.”)

I think it was my final conversation with my father that did it, just before he fell into a coma. The conversation was all about dreams, about how when he moved here from Pakistan he had all these dreams for himself. We were talking on the phone, and I was telling him about the job I had as an assistant and how I didn’t feel happy. And then he brought up his own unhappiness, which was a shock to me. I hadn’t ever heard about my father being unhappy with his career, or about how everything turned out.

Back in Chicago, after he passed, I started working in retail (at a video game store, where she ran into all sorts of high school friends) and wrote the rest of the time. The goal was to write my way out of Chicago again, back to L.A., and find a way to make ”Hala.”

Q: Can you talk about the next project?

A: I can talk a little bit about it. I’m working on a noir drama for Amazon, still in the writing stages. We haven’t delivered the episodes yet. We just started up again (after the strike) this week.

Q: And your next feature?

A: I’m in this space now where I lost my father 10 years ago, and while I was in production with “We Grown Now” my mother fell gravely ill. She’s now in hospice with end-stage dementia, and her decline has been very different from my father’s. His end was sudden; he went to the hospital and passed 17 days later. My mother has been declining cognitively for the past 10, 12 years. It feels like I’ve lost her in pieces, over time.

The next movie explores some of that. I don’t see myself as a very old person but I’ve dealt with a certain amount of … heaviness, I guess. It was hard shooting a movie while that was happening. It was a time when I’d been devoting so much of my time to myself and my work, while my personal relationships with my mother and my family suffered. I’d been away so much. So that was part of finishing the film, this realization that I needed to shift my priorities in life.

Q: That’s a huge load. 

A: It’s heavy.

Q: Ten years from now, I wonder how it’ll all feel to you? Maybe you’ll write your way out of that, too. Or through it.

A: Yeah. I’m always writing my way out of things.

Q: So why Hyde Park? 

A: For a long time I’ve done a lot of writing at Build Coffee, the coffeehouse at Experimental Station. Do you know that place? It’s great. I call it the cultural hub of Hyde Park. Artists, journalists, activists, the South Side Weekly is there, the Hyde Park Herald, a lot of University of Chicago folks. It feels like my community.

I’ve just always loved it here. I wanted to be close to the lake. And I spent so much time on the North Side, growing up. Rogers Park is beautiful, but I needed a change of pace.

A question came up yesterday, during a (CIFF) panel: “What do you feel like you’re missing by being a filmmaker in Chicago? Do you feel like you’re missing out on opportunities by being here?” For years I felt like if I left L.A., I’d miss out on something. And then I realized my own work process is simple: I need somewhere to write, to incubate something very quietly and carefully. And then when I need to take it out into the world, I’ll engage with the rest of the world.


“We Grown Now” makes its commercial bow in early 2024, to be released by Sony Pictures Classics.


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