Named after the nearly vertical angle at which they ride their dirt bikes, the 12 O’Clock Boys are at once a relatively benign Baltimore “gang” (especially relative to the activity so memorably detailed in The Wire) and a rowdy public menace responsible for a dozen or so accidental deaths every year. Filmmaker Lotfy Nathan, who followed a young, aspiring member named Pug for three years, withholds judgment. Indeed, he withholds everything that might push the movie in a particular direction, which is both its strength and its weakness. For the most part, 12 O’Clock Boys is just a loose-limbed portrait of a community, with special emphasis on one slightly wayward teenager; its rhythm is the jagged rhythm of everyday life, and its primary asset is its unemphatic authenticity, offering a window into a very specific time and place.
So allergic is this documentary to exposition that it’s not even clear whether Pug is the young man’s real name or just a nickname. (His mother, a former exotic dancer, is identified solely as Coco, so it could go either way.) Small for his age, he’s nonetheless determined to join Baltimore’s best-known dirt-bike squad, which has achieved worldwide fame thanks to a series of YouTube videos. Nobody is trying to stop him, apart from a guy who steals his bike near the end of the film; it’s typical of Nathan’s approach that this event is handled so offhandedly that it’s not entirely clear whether the theft happened right before our eyes. Even when Pug’s older brother suddenly dies of an asthma attack, it barely registers as a blip. There’s a quick shot of him in an open casket, a few words of grief from Coco, and then the movie just plows ahead, as if there’s no time to wallow in the past. It can be disconcerting.
Baltimore police officers are forbidden from chasing dirt bikers, for fear of endangering pedestrians and other motorists; mostly, they monitor the 12 O’Clock Boys from helicopters (which the bikers call “birds”), attempting to make arrests after the perpetrators have returned home. Consequently, Nathan gets some arresting footage of the bikers playing chicken with the cops, knowing they’re unlikely to be pursued and confident they can escape even if they are. (An interview with a former cop whose alleged pursuit of a biker led to his death codifies the tension between the law and the community.) For the most part, though, Nathan just follows Pug around, watching him grow up and silently observing the paucity of choices and role models available to him. At just 75 minutes, the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome, though its shapelessness can be frustrating; it ends abruptly, on a moment that could be interpreted as a triumph or as a profound loss, and it doesn’t seem to care much what one concludes.