‘Charm City Kings’ Review: Growing Up, and Almost Spinning Out

The dirt bikes and their exuberant operators are the saving grace — and joy — of the sincere if overstuffed drama “Charm City Kings.” These aren’t just any rides and riders. They’re more like horses and cowboys, with wild moves and flamboyant tricks that can bring to mind a rodeo show. At other times, though, when a particularly skilled rider drives his all-terrain vehicle down a Baltimore street, popping wheelies or standing tall in the saddle, you’re suddenly watching a charioteer in his glory.

There are moments of great athleticism and beauty in these scenes, which help lift this overly, at times ponderously plotted movie about a boy spinning in circles at the proverbial crossroads. Just 13, Mouse (the appealing Jahi Di’Allo Winston) lives with his mother (Teyonah Parris, doing much with little), who’s often heading off to work, leaving him to watch over his kid sister. Mouse would rather hang out with his friends (who wouldn’t?), ride his bike or gawp at the vrooming spectacle he longs to join. And while he has dreams, he has enough baggage to fill several overhead compartments.

The filmmakers give Mouse a lot to navigate on his journey, including a dead brother, a new girlfriend, catastrophic role models and two father figures — an ex-con and a cop — who embody opposite forks in the road. (The rapper Meek Mill is a standout as the ex-con.) There’s a sick dog and a gun, which inevitably goes off. There are also too many characters, a handful of worth are noting simply because of how they represent racial difference. There’s an angry cop and a nice veterinarian, both white and both of whom have less impact and narrative weight than some unfriendly grocery owners, Asian stereotypes who scowl at Mouse when he and his friends shop.

Things happen and then more things happen, little of it surprising. The movie was inspired by the documentary “12 O’Clock Boys” (2014), a beautifully impressionistic, tightly constructed look at the Baltimore dirt-bike scene. In a fleet 75 minutes, the documentary’s director, Lotfy Nathan, tells the story of a young boy named Pug, his family and his world. Oscillating between the sweeping and the detailed, Nathan also squeezes in a lot about the institutional forces that help circumscribe the riders’ lives, including the police (often hovering above in helicopters) and the local media that reports on the, yes, sometimes dangerous scene, as if it posed a veritable menace to civilization.

Coming in at just over two hours, “Charm City Kings” — the title refers to a nickname for Baltimore — doesn’t open up the story so much as overburden it. There are a number of cooks: The screenwriter is Sherman Payne, and the story is credited to Chris Boyd, Kirk Sullivan and Barry Jenkins. The director, Angel Manuel Soto, handles the parts and players adroitly, though he tends to have the performers deliver lines like ultimatums. But Soto gives the movie real feeling as well as a distinct visual look, complete with some sinuous camera moves and a lush, inviting palette (the director of photography is Katelin Arizmendi) that brightens this world and helps soften its edges.

Sometimes those edges are too blunted, particularly in how the movie deals with power. The cop (Will Catlett) is a nice guy, but his outsized role also means that he’s a benign proxy for police (and paternalistic) authority. “I’m gonna keep being here for you,” he promises Mouse, who just happens to be wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a handful of outlaw names: Avon, Stringer, etc. Those are from the series “The Wire,” and they signal the road that Mouse seems to be headed down. They also underscore that no one involved in making this movie gleaned the most powerful truth of “The Wire”: that individual failings and kindnesses are no match for institutions of power.

Charm City Kings
Rated R for gun violence, dangerous stunts (don’t try any of this at home, kids!) and crude language. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.

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