Charm City Kings begins and ends with real-life footage of young men doing outrageous things on dirt bikes and the like – wheelies down the road, mostly, but wheelies done at such speed and with such a degree of virtuosity that you want to see more.
Not unnaturally, that’s what I thought I was getting, a film about guys who do wheelies on bikes. And I still thought I was getting that as I was introduced to Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis) and Lamont (Donielle Tremaine Hansley), three 14-year-old from the Baltimore (aka Charm City) hood who want to run – and ride – with the big boys.
And I continued to think that when director Angel Manuel Soto’s feature debut introduced me to Rivers (Will Catlett), a decent cop who keeps an eye on Mouse, fearful that he’s going to go the way of his older brother, now dead in some hood-related shooting.
Hopes of getting wild stuff on bikes picked up when mention was made of local bike gang the Midnight Clique, aspirational hero figures to Mouse and crew, who are also smalltime gangsters using their rides to run stuff (drugs basically) around town. But, finally, the “here we go” moment came as Mouse sneaks out from the house his hard-working mother has forbidden him to leave to go and watch “the Ride”, when (mostly) men on bikes assemble to show off.
From here, though, the film dives up several alleys at the same time – up one is Blax (Meek Mill), a local legend, ex-con and former gang member now trying to go straight fixing up bikes in a garage. Up another is a new arrival in town, Nicki (Chandler DuPont), who piques Mouse’s emerging interest in girls. Then there’s the animal hospital where Mouse does shifts. Life on the streets with his friends. His dead brother’s backstory. Life at home with his hard-working, fearful mother (Teyonah Parris) and cute mercenary sister (Milan Ray). A growing involvement with the Midnight Clique. Not forgetting good cop Rivers. There’s a lot going on here, too much for there to be much space left for stunts.
There’s actually too much going on for any of the stories to really breathe free. Some seem implausible from the start – Nicki seems to be simply too old, too mature, for Mouse. She’s pretty much most of the way to womanhood; he’s a boy just hitting puberty. Mouse’s mother, great though Teyonah Parris is in the role, doesn’t get an awful lot of screen time, though it’s her hopes (will Mouse become a veterinarian?) and fears (or join a gang like his brother?) that actually drive the story along. And the gang, for all the street-pungency of the performances of Pacino (what a name!) Braxton and Lakeyria Doughty, just don’t have enough to do.
Nor, in all honesty do Meek Mill and Will Catlett as Blax and Rivers, though this is by far the most interesting plot strand – Mouse caught up in a strange triangle between two men who both want to be a father figure. In fact at one point the two men have a stand-up row – I’m the daddy, no, I’m the daddy kind of thing – which is so odd that the screenplay feels the need to insert a coded “these men are not paedophiles” disclaimer. Odd, but interesting, an Angels with Dirty Faces dynamic, though both of these men are good guys.
It’s busy and a bit messy and, really, the street bikes business is a touch of a mis-sell. Though it’s inspired by Lofty Nathan’s 2013 documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, the film could lose all the dirt bike stuff and it would still be over-full. But, appropriately, it is full of charm, thanks to the three excellent young leads, and without that bookending stuntacular footage it wouldn’t be quite as much fun.
© Steve Morrissey 2020