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Film Reviews: Evil Does Not Exist & We Grown Now

Arts Review2024-5-10By: Classical Staff


Family Dramas

Evil Does Not Exist & We Grown Now

By Marc Glassman


Evil Does Not Exist

Ryusuke Hamaguchi, director & co-writer

Eiko Ishibashi, composer & co-writer

Starring: Hitoshi Omika (Takumi), Ryo Nishikawa (Hana), Ryuji Kosaka (Takahashi), Ayaka Shibutani (Mayuzumi), Taijiro Tamura (Mayor), Hiroyuki Miura (Kazuo)


It’s always hard to follow up a hugely successful film so the reality that Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi has merely created a puzzling, intermittently radiant, feature after the worldwide acclaim he received for the dazzling Drive My Car shouldn’t be all that surprising. Don’t get me wrong: Evil Does Not Exist is eminently watchable and occasionally brilliant, but it lacks the dramatic coherence of Drive My Car, which garnered prizes from Japan (Asian Film Awards) to Los Angeles (Golden Globes) to France (Cannes). Still, Evil did win the Silver Lion at Venice, and though it won’t be remembered as rapturously as Drive, it has many qualities to commend it.

The origins of the new film come from an unusual place for a narrative film, which may explain its inherent oddity. Hamaguchi and the avant-garde composer Eiko Ishibashi initially intended Evil Does Not Exist to be a silent film for which she would create music in live performances, presumably with her partner, the experimental musician Jim O’Rourke. There is no dialogue—only minimal but immensely evocative music—for the first ten minutes of the film, which is ravishingly shot in a mountainous forest, with the woods set resplendently against the sky in a wintry landscape. 

Even in that rapturous sequence, though, Hamaguchi does offer us a smidgen of a narrative with a little girl walking all alone through the woods in certain scenes and a man cutting firewood somewhere else in the forest. You instinctively know that the two will figure prominently in the film—and they do: the 8-year-old Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) is the daughter of the woodsman Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), and they form the emotional core of the story.    

After the luminous opening, Hamaguchi does create a plot, while allowing enough pictorial space for Ishibashi to continue her sonic experiments. We quickly discover that Takumi is a forgetful but loving father who has to find Hana in the forest because he forgot to pick her up from school. Later, after an extended family-style dinner, he heads to a town meeting, which forms another set-piece that is totally different from the one in the beginning.

The idyllic life in the village is being threatened by an urban company that wants to build a large site towards the top of the forest for “glamping,” a hideous new word, which means glamorous camping. Playmode, a Tokyo outfit with COVID money to spend, wants to rapidly create a resort, where weekenders from big cities can pretend that they’re part of nature while actually still living in the lap of luxury. Shifting gears stylistically from visual lyricism to the feel of a nitty-gritty documentary, Hamaguchi presents an old-fashioned town hall meeting with the local community raising objections to Playmode’s plans. He emphasizes their colourful individualism as they explain why they aren’t happy about glamping. 

It turns out that the planners hadn’t considered that the runoffs from the glamping site would pollute the immaculately clean water. Nor had they realised that felling trees in a windy region would lead to potential wildfires. Trying to respond to these reasonable objections are a couple of city dwellers employed by Playmode, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), who are clearly stunned by the fervor and intelligence of the villagers. Takumi speaks up wisely, trying to maintain a civil discourse, allowing the presenters to go back to their boss for compromises to the dilemmas brought up by the local people. 

Shifting the narrative thrust, Hamaguchi leaves the village and has the camera follow the young, quiet woman, Mayuzumi and the slick slightly older man, Takahashi, as they discover in Tokyo that their company isn’t willing to bend at all; they simply want to buy off their objectors and get their glamping resort built. 

Hamaguchi then creates his third set-piece in Evil Does Not Exist. In a long car ride back to the village, Mayuzumi and Takahashi discuss their lives, aspirations, and philosophies. Neither is a straw dog villain. They have their griefs and sadness: Mayuzumi has no idea who she is while Takahashi is lonely and truly questioning why he is acting as a front man for an organization that doesn’t care about him or have any business principles. A master at creating dialogue scenes in cars, Hamaguchi offers us another one here.

At this point, the director dramatically changes the tone of Evil Does Not Exist. Hana disappears one afternoon in the forest. The villagers, including Takahashi, head out to find her…And then, suddenly, the film changes again. There’s an abrupt, violent, and ambiguous finish to the film that have left many audience members, and even some critics, saying “WTF.” We know nothing conclusively—though some of us feel that we have witnessed (in my case, four times on repeat) a tragic ending. But perhaps we’re wrong. If evil doesn’t exist in this world, violence certainly does. 

In any case, Evil Does Not Exist is a film worth seeing. So much of it is excellent—and you can join in the debate about how it all ended. This isn’t Drive My Car but Hamaguchi has made a film that will intrigue, fascinate, and possibly infuriate you. 


We Grown Now

Minhal Baig, director & writer

Starring: Blake Cameron James (Malik), Gian Knight Ramirez (Eric), Jurnee Smollett (Dolores), S. Epatha Merkerson (Anita), Lil Rel Howery (Jason), Avery Holliday (Amber)


A sensitive, beautifully rendered portrait of two Chicago Black boys growing up in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, We Grown Now is a remarkable achievement by the Pakistani American filmmaker Minhal Baig. The film deservedly won the Changemaker Award at TIFF for its “strong social message” and awareness of the difficulties faced by young people in this changing and extremely challenging world. Now in commercial release, its delicate approach to a story that could have been dramatized sensationally will make it a critical success and, one hopes, an audience pleaser.

The film recounts the stories of two members in a Chicago family: Malik (a charismatic Blake Cameron James), the eldest child, growing up surprisingly well in a hazardous environment and Dolores (a quietly persuasive Jurnee Smollett), his mother, who is taking care of her aging mother Anita (a sombre S. Epatha Merkerson) and children while working at a demanding office job. Eschewing stereotypes and clichés, Baig, who grew up in Chicago, has shown us in Malik a poetic young man whose inner life is so strong that he is able to not only survive but prosper in stultifying racist conditions in the early Nineties. Much of the film takes place from Malik’s perspective: a youngster who believes in jumping—for fun, because he’s a kid; for real and as a metaphor, since life is too painful otherwise, and for aspiration, because he loves Michael Jordan—and was there anyone in Chicago who didn’t want to be MJ back then?

Malik has a best friend, Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), who is his next door neighbour and shares his poetic visions. The two transform the bleak reality around them into something wonderful. In a memorable scene, they stare at the cracked ceiling in an abandoned apartment and turn it into a constellation of stars. The two boys grab abandoned mattresses and box springs, pile them up, and do their variations on the Jordan jump. Most extraordinarily, they fight against conformity and the police by shouting out loud, “I exist.” “We exist.” Which they certainly do.

Of central importance in this measured account of life in a 1990s Chicago ghetto is Malik’s mother, Dolores. Raised in Cabrini-Green by parents who had fled the terrifying racism of Tupelo, Mississippi for the somewhat more moderate Midwest city—at least there were no lynchings—Dolores had been given parental love and hope in post-war Chicago. But she married young, birthed two children, and found herself on a treadmill of low paying jobs as a single mother by her early 30s. After her father died, Dolores ended up being the sole support for Anita, her loving but aging mother as well. An intelligent and emotionally resilient person, Dolores is truly admirable—yet she is living, as Thoreau memorably put it, a “life of quiet desperation.”

At night, Malik hears Dolores and his grandmother Anita talking to each other in whispers. He knows that these quiet conversations will affect his life, so he listens carefully, but not everything is clear or completely understood. The power that Malik possesses is that of youth, full of the intensity which turns terrible situations into good ones by the force of imagination and hope. But while he can turn the cracks in the rooftops and the concrete in playgrounds into something more beautiful through his instinctive poetic insight, Malik has to accept what adults do in real life—at school, in the streets and with his family.

In the fall of 1992, a seven-year old boy, Dantrell Davis, was accidentally shot to death by a member of a street gang in the Cabrini-Green housing projects. Minhal Baig places that tragic story into her narrative with Malik’s family going to Dantrell’s wake and funeral. The message is clear: Dolores should get out with her family before another tragedy hits. 

The final section of We Grown Now is taken up with a job offer for Dolores that will take her and the family out of the project. How that affects Malik, and his best friend Eric is the emotional lynchpin for the rest of the film. 

We Grown Now is a lovely poetic film. Cutting against the grain of sensational urban Black narratives, Minhal Baig has fashioned a sensitive account of a family living and growing in tough circumstances in Chicago. Yet the film isn’t about violence. It’s about the love that a grandmother and mother feel for their children and the powerful friendship that evolves between two boys in a housing project. Baig has made an important film that people should see and embrace.



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