Rubber screeches against road. It’s the first Sunday of summer in Baltimore, and the sound announces the arrival of The Midnight Clique, a pack of daredevil dirt bike riders. To Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a Black teenager whose late brother belonged to the group, they look like gladiators entering the coliseum. Everyone cheers for the bikers. Mouse longs to join them. His treacherous road toward that goal, and possibly to perdition, runs the length of Charm City Kings, a rousing coming-of-age tale from Puerto Rican director Angel Manuel Soto.
The screenplay, written by Sherman Payne (with a story-by credit for none other than Barry Jenkins, of Moonlight fame), is based in nonfiction: Lotfy Nathan’s acclaimed documentary on Baltimore dirt bike culture, 12 O’Clock Boys. Although it allows for some exhilarating chase sequences, the fast and furious premise is mostly a backdrop, providing specificity to a drama of boys dabbling dangerously in the perils of adulthood. Mouse and his best friends—Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.), who exhibits a frightening fearlessness, and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis), the charming comic relief—crave validation. At home, Mouse’s mother encourages him to pursue his passion for animals and perhaps become a veterinarian one day, but that lacks the appeal of cruising down the block on his own two-wheeler and chasing a quick, illicit buck.
Soto’s debut, La Granja, also centered a determined young man (among several other characters) making his way in a hostile environment. It’s not such a jarring jump, thematically, from that naturalistic arthouse effort to an English-language project set in a different marginalized community. Soto stages some slick, elaborate sequences set to Bad Bunny tunes, but the greatest proof of his prowess are the performances he elicits from a cast of disparate ages and experience levels. There’s an uninhibited candor to the young actors’ banter, yielding hilarious remarks and comebacks that prevent Charm City Kings from ever feeling like a simplistic wallow.
Payne and Soto, from the page to the set, paint this corner of America with an effortless quotidian liveliness, from Mouse’s courtship of the artistically inclined and new to town Nicki (Chandler DuPont), to the love-hate dynamic between him and his younger sister. Every unvarnished location adds to the lived-in atmosphere; when cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi floats her camera through Mouse’s house, she’s not so much tracing his steps as inviting us into a hard-earned family space. Admittedly, some of the beats of the plot rehash tropes associated with inner-city youth narratives. But they seem less recycled when applied to the ways Mouse tries to integrate into the adult world.
It’s with particular depth that Charm City Kings explores his ambivalent relationship with two conflicting role models pledging to steer him away from a future of incarceration. Stern but openhearted, Detective Rivers (William Catlett) takes a hands-on approach; he’s been in the kid’s life for years, but as a police officer, struggles to earn his trust. Conversely, Blax (rapper Meek Mill), an emeritus member of The Midnight Clique and a friend of Mouse’s brother, attempts to instill in him a brand of outdated masculinity that demands zero vulnerability. Their goal is identical, their tactics and motivations distinct: Blax operates out of guilt, Rivers from a pedestal of moral superiority.
Neither can fully get through to Mouse, as he’s emotionally trapped in his own grief and the desire to assert himself, to test the boundaries of his newfound freedom in riding with the big boys. But there are harsh consequences he hasn’t contemplated, and few second chances to do so. Through it all, Winston, who previously appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, offers an organic medley of performative toughness and radiant sincerity. The strength of the performance lies in the untainted nature Winston allows us to glimpse beneath the façade. Mouse is just a kid playing at being a man, and his innocence shows. Eventually, he’s presented with two divergent paths, literally sprawling out before him one fateful night, when he’s forced to either continue retracing his older sibling’s steps or change course.
Aside from an overly melodramatic climax, Soto maintains an even-handed tone, at once thoughtful and tense. He tinkers with the familiarity of the film’s borrowed conceit and finds a better version. Charm City Kings distinguishes itself from similar fare not just through its location and eye-popping bikes but also with the believably imperfect people that populate it. They’re susceptible to joy and tragedy outside the sensationalism of your average crime saga. Even at its showiest, the film locates nuances of recognizable emotion. That’s a greater feat than any bike stunt, cool as they may be.