Not every documentary lends itself to a narrative adaptation, but “12 O’Clock Boys” begged for it. Lotfy Nathan’s 2013 portrait of Baltimore dirt-bikers captured carefree speed demons careening through narrow streets, while a young boy dreams of joining their crew. On its own terms, Nathan’s scrappy non-fiction gem was a riveting action movie and an inner-city coming-of-age drama all at once. “Charm City Kings” fits the material into a more formulaic narrative mold. Despite a lot of familiar beats, the potential of the original comes through, with a sentimental portrait of childhood dreamers and the reckless men who inspire them.
Guided by Angel Manuel Soto’s slick direction and a breakthrough performance from Jahi Di’Allo Winston, the movie works overtime to energize real-world struggles with the thrill of street life. At the same time, “Charm City Kings” channels Yasujiro Ozu’s ability to foreground sensitive child performances in a story loaded with adult situations.
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In this case, that’s Myron (Winston), a petite troublemaker who goes by the moniker of “Mouse” and roams around West Baltimore one wild summer with his two pals Lamont (Donielle Tremaine Hansley) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis). The trio gathers every Sunday to watch bikers zipping down the streets in makeshift derbies, “doing the 12” as they pitch backward in elaborate wheelies that stop Mouse’s heart. There’s a Spielbergian sense of wonder to his frozen look of awe as he imagines himself in their crew, but the grown-ups in his life aren’t too thrilled with the fixation.
Raised by a single mother (Teyonah Parris, “If Beale Street Could Talk”) and a police officer who has mentored him since childhood (William Catlett), Mouse is regularly pressured to pursue his love for animals with a summer gig at the veterinarian’s office. While he certainly adores cats and dogs — an early scene finds him delivering kittens in the bathroom — he’s more at home on the streets, where his pint-sized crew rolls around on mopeds and he forges an adorable romance with the visiting Nicki (Chandler DuPont). His greatest role model, former criminal Blax (Meek Mill), cruises around town as the leader of the Midnight Clique, often with the cops on his tail. When Mouse and his peers make overtures to the gang, Blax takes on a paternal role while pushing the kid to confront his fear of stuntwork.
So begins an engaging, if often clichéd, morality play fit into the neat constraints of a single wily summer. Blax promises Mouse that he’ll outfit him with a bike if he helps out around Blax’s auto shop, leading the kid to struggle between dueling allegiances to his new mentor and his mother’s sincere desire to see him succeed in the wider world. Mouse’s struggles stem back to his brother’s death, a moment that haunts some of the more upsetting confrontations between Mouse and his support system, as he grows more inclined to embrace the darker prospects of a rebel life. Sherman Payne’s script doesn’t take a lot of surprising turns, but it succeeds at keeping the story rooted in Mouse’s uncertain perspective. “Scared money don’t make no money,” Blax tells him, as the child goes from rascally adventurer to risk-taker on the verge of ruining his future.
That longline creates threatens to push “Charm City Kings” into after-school special turf, and some of the two-bit criminal antics struggle through simplistic archetype. Fortunately, the movie comes alive when the cyclists speed through the streets, as the action delivers just enough to live within the riveting blend of danger and thrill that defines Mouse’s story. That’s particularly true in a bracing police chase through barricades and alleys as cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi keeps the camera close to the momentum throughout.
The sequence is so thrilling that it makes the more conventional aspects of the story stand out. Even so, Mouse makes for such an involving character, with Di’Allo’s naturalistic turn grounding the material in the credible journey of a black child sifting through mixed messages about how to become a man.
“Charm City Kings” boasts Will Smith as an executive producer, but hands a story credit to Barry Jenkins (who wrote an early draft), and the resulting aesthetic suggests a fusion of these two storytellers’ impulses — it revels in the chic appeal of black masculinity at the heart of Smith’s star power, while evoking the “Moonlight” premise of alienation forcing gentle, introverted people to lash out. While not quite a Hollywood product (originally set for production at Sony, it eventually found its way to specialty arm Sony Pictures Classics), “Charm City Kings” provides a welcome alternative to blander escapism by culling from genuine concerns.
It’s a shame, then, that the movie loses its flow in the closing act, with a series of contrived showdowns and overwrought violence as clunky shorthand for raising the stakes. It’s not that Mouse’s journey lacks the potential to end in a tragic place, but the movie careens into melodramatic territory that weakens its realistic foundation.
Still, “Charm City Kings” resonates in much the same way that “12 O’Clock Boys” did, by burrowing inside a community defined by contradictory impulses. At first blush, it seems a no-brainer that Mouse should give up his fixation on the biker life to pursue the greater potential at his disposal. But “Charm City Kings” presents the excitement of the road so well that its allure isn’t easy to dismiss. That was true in Nathan’s documentary as well, and while “Charm City Kings” certainly captures much about the original’s appeal, it’s also a welcome excuse to return to it.
“Charm City Kings” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics releases it April 10.
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