Angel Manuel Soto’s tale of Baltimore dirt bikers has all the right ingredients, but it rides the clutch too often.
Back in 2013, Lotfy Nathan’s documentary 12 O’Clock Boys had its festival premiere at South by Southwest. The 76-minute jaunt followed a kid called Pug and his introduction to the eponymous Baltimore dirt bike riders, and seven years later comes a scripted take on the matter. It has a similar setup and follows the same culture, but the requisite changes have been made. Now it’s Charm City Kings, and the dirt bikers aren’t the 12 O’Clock Boys. In fact, they aren’t even the Charm City Kings: They’re the Midnight Clique, and they’re still the coolest things on wheels.
With that, it’s easy to see why our hero, now known as Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), wants to be a part of them. It’s the summer before eighth grade. His older brother has recently died, leaving his mother (Teyonah Parris) even more on edge about his behavior—and, of course, making him even more eager than before to grow up. It sounds familiar on paper at first, but that doesn’t matter. Charm City Kings oozes style, and Angel Manuel Soto is a director with movement on his mind. The camera is swift as its characters, and DP Katelin Arizmendi deftly juggles pastel-caked interiors and saturated, sundrenched streets.
But for all the energy both in front of and behind the camera, this thing rides the clutch way too much. It’s not necessarily that it’s disengaged; it’s that it’s so rocky, either throwing itself in the air or wading through clichés. Charm City Kings is so specific in terms of its culture and location to the point where the entire movie feels complete from minute one. So why does it put its own identity on the backburner past the 45-minute mark?
Up until then, it’s smooth sailing. Sherman Payne’s script shows Mouse’s life quite well and, by taking his point of view, focuses entirely on certain characters while all but forgetting others in a way that implicitly understands his psychology. Winston and his wide-eyed, chest-out performance bring this life, and when it works, Charm City Kings is Mouse’s movie. But it doesn’t focus on only him: Donielle T. Hansley Jr. and Kezii Curtis round out the movie’s exploration of adolescent masculinity as best friends Lamont and Sweartagawd, respectively. It’s a loose movie with a fittingly loose feel.
The real surprise, though, is Meek Mill as Blax, the Midnight Clique’s former leader fresh out of jail. He’s as hopeful as he is quietly moving, a candle that’s just been put out. In fact, his work—and the tone the movie finds alongside him—seems to be what Soto is really aiming for. Charm City Kings works best as a snapshot of a subculture equal parts loud, jovial, and peaceful. What makes that work, however, is its ethnographic look at how this group continues to thrive despite the world closing in around them. The problem is that this approach dissolves in favor of cliché after cliché.
[F]or all the energy both in front of and behind the camera, this thing rides the clutch way too much. It’s not necessarily that it’s disengaged; it’s that it’s so rocky.
One has to wonder just what happened. The story is originally from Kirk Sullivan & Christopher M. Boyd and Barry Jenkins. Payne, meanwhile, is the only credited screenwriter, and it can’t help but feel that something got lost in translation, a celebration of Black culture not often seen on film that somehow stalls after a while. Some subplots, such as Mouse’s kinship with new girl Nicki (Chandler DuPont), carry a young innocence that’s hard to capture—and then pretty much fade away. Other sequences, like the final half-hour, feel tacked on thanks to an abrupt turn into operatics.
It doesn’t help either Soto’s film is over two hours. Never mind how long 12 O’Clock Boys was; this specific story could be in and out in less than an hour and a half. It isn’t even like Payne has written something that fully qualifies as a kitchen sink drama, either. The movie acts like he has throughout despite its adherence to a mainstream formula. Some threads, such as Mouse’s dream to become a vet or his relationship with Blax, should work, and they likely would have in better hands. But while Charm City Kings starts off observing and celebrating, its shifts into melodrama feel more like attempts to tie its pieces together. Simply letting them be would have paid off more.
Charm City Kings is now on HBO Max.