Charm City Kings is a dramatic adaptation of the 2013 documentary, 12 O'Clock Boys. On the poverty-stricken streets of West Baltimore, at risk youth find purpose and acceptance by joining illegal dirt bike gangs. Who film themselves performing dangerous stunts while evading law enforcement. Their exhilaration builds camaraderie, but often leads to criminal activity. Charm City Kings shows how a desperate environment and poor role models lead children astray. It strikes at the heart of the racial and socioeconomic issues pervading America's inner cities.
Jahi Di'Allo Winston stars as Mouse, a thoughtful eighth-grader who works part-time at an animal hospital. Mouse dreams of becoming a veterinarian. He lives with his mother (Teyonah Parris) and younger sister (Milan Ray) in a decrepit row house. Mouse's beloved older brother, an avid dirt biker, died when he was a child. Mouse spends the summer on the streets with his best friends, Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis). The teens idolize the bikers in a gang called the Midnight Clique.
Detective Rivers (William Catlett) tries to keep an eye on Mouse, but he's afraid to be seen with a cop. Blax (Meek Mill), the ex-con leader of the Midnight Clique, takes Mouse under his wing. The boys work in his garage to earn their own bikes. Mouse watches as the gang makes easy money selling drugs. His mother toils all day, and then goes to school at night. She cries over past due bills. Mouse decides it's time for him to step up and be a man. His fateful choice leads to disastrous consequences.
Charm City Kings explores multiple themes with varying degrees of success. Director Angel Manuel Soto (La Granja) captures the world of street bikes and ATVs with a cinematic flourish. His camera work tracking the bikes and their insane wheelies is well done. He also does a good job depicting the economic struggles of Baltimore daily life. I had issues with the characterizations of the adult supporting cast. A critical scene between Mouse and his mother is unrealistic. She behaves in a way that is not believable, especially for a hardworking woman who already lost a child. Meek Mill and William Catlett have valuable exposition as the male authority figures trying to influence Mouse. But that is sadly lacking with his mother and the stereotypical gang members.
Running off its 12 O'Clock Boys narrative, Charm City Kings won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The award is entirely due to the performances of the young actors. Mouse, Lamont, and Sweartagawd embody the innocence of childhood. They talk trash, awkwardly engage girls, and hope for a life better than the dregs that surround them. Their transition from sweet kids bicycling to wannabe gangsters on dirt bikes is heartbreaking. They become statistics on a path where few return. There are no second chances for many impoverished people of color. This is the glaring message and warning of the film.
Compare Charm City Kings with Bo Burnham's endearing Eighth Grade. Both are heartfelt coming of age stories, but in vastly different worlds. How would Mouse have fared as a suburban adolescent in a middle-class neighborhood? All children face anxiety, peer pressure, and acceptance problems growing up. But a kid from the gritty streets of places like Baltimore has so much working against them. There has to be a concerted effort to bridge this gap. Charm City Kings is not a flawless portrayal of this disparity, but a stark and effective reminder. Charm City Kings is a production of Sony Pictures and Overbrook Entertainment. It will be available to stream October 8th on HBO Max.