'Charm City Kings': Film Review | Sundance 2020

A disappointing look at Baltimore’s dirt bike scene.

A Baltimore teen has to choose between preparing for a future as a veterinarian and “getting money” in a dirt bike gang’s drug operation in this drama from director Angel Manuel Soto.

A gritty coming-of-age drama, Charm City Kings introduces viewers to a dirt bike scene where Baltimore’s young people have honed a sports-like showmanship and sense of community over the last 50 years. Directed by Angel Manuel Soto with a script from Sherman Payne and a story penned by Barry Jenkins, Chris Boyd and Kirk Sullivan, the film is based on the documentary 12 O’Clock Boys from director Lotfy Nathan. More West Baltimore stories from the perspective of the people who live there are certainly welcome, and the film has an intriguing premise about Baltimore dirt bike crews, a subculture little known by outsiders.

Surprisingly, though, the script doesn’t use this intriguing premise to the film’s advantage. Instead, the dirt bike hook quickly becomes an artificial facade for yet another generic story about Baltimore’s drug trade.

The pic starts strong. Charming young actor Jahi Di’allo Winston (Queen & Slim) plays middle-schooler Mouse, who uses the money from his job at an animal hospital to buy his first ATV, a secret he keeps from his mother, Teri (Teyonah Parris, If Beale Street Could Talk), who doesn’t want him involved in the dirt bike scene that took his older brother Stro’s young life.

But Mouse wants to honor Stro by mastering the thing he loved. So he takes his bootleg ATV to The Ride, where riders show off their skills on a blocked-off city street every Sunday of the summer. Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi artfully captures an adrenaline-packed chase scene between the cops and a couple Midnight Clique (Stro’s old gang that Mouse wants to join) riders who threw a brick through a patrol vehicle window. It is reminiscent of a scene in Ryan Coogler’s Creed that, with its varying frame rates and hero shots, transformed a crew’s dirt bike ride through Philadelphia into a choreographed dance.

Here, Soto and Arizmendi set the stage for what we assume will be more action sequences to come, but strangely this ends up being the only scene in the movie that actually shows the power and allure of the dirt bikes for Mouse and the Midnight Clique. It’s pretty much a snooze fest on that front subsequently, as the story turns to what it focuses on for the remainder of the film: Mouse’s struggle between preparing for his future as a veterinarian and “getting money” as a low-level lieutenant in Midnight Clique’s drug operation.

Thankfully, Mouse is a fleshed-out character whose wants (a fancy dirt bike, to get together with the new girl down the street) and obstacles (poverty, the pervasive influence of the streets) are clearly laid out. And the ensemble of supporting roles and performances are mostly convincing. Will Catlett as “good” black cop Rivers and Meek Mill as Blax, the former drug kingpin turning his life around after his last stint in jail, both do fine work as men who mentor Mouse. Rivers and Blax indeed both want to keep Mouse out of the drug trade and on a successful path; the film seems to be suggesting that not growing up in a house with a biological father doesn’t mean father figures are absent from this character's life. Teri even drinks from a “Best Dad” coffee mug, a playful wink to the way the film pushes against the absent-black-father trope. Meanwhile, Parris delivers as Mouse’s stressed-out single mom, who is doing the best she can to keep the lights on. 

One of the most bizarre things about Charm City Kings is how it depicts the police. In order to set up up a conflict between Rivers and Blax, the movie tries to downplay the mostly white police force that patrols West Baltimore’s black community. White cops are only in the background, and we see them respectfully following every law and de-escalating humanely before they shoot. It’s a fantasy where Rivers gets to be the good black cop and the face of a #notallcops Baltimore police force — that in real life is notoriously corrupt and racist — and Blax is the ex-con who can’t escape his dirty life, despite opening his own dirt bike mechanic shop and turning away from the drug trade.

For better or worse, every modern-day story about West Baltimore has to contend with The Wire, and Charm City Kings gives a playful wink and nod to the acclaimed David Simon series by putting Mouse in a “Stringer, Avon, Wee-Bey, D'Angelo” T-shirt halfway through the story. It makes sense as the film is shot on location on the same West Baltimore streets that The Wire famously made recognizable to outsiders. Sadly, despite its title referencing a dirt bike gang, Charm City Kings doesn’t really show us anything we haven’t seen before. Unable to harness the story’s potential, the filmmakers instead deliver a mostly canned movie that flatlines 20 minutes before it comes to an end.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Production Companies: Overbrook Entertainment, Sony Pictures

Cast: Jahi Di'allo Winston, ?Meek Mill,? Will Catlett, Donielle Tremaine Hansley, Kezii Curtis,?Chino, Lakeyria Doughty, Chandler Dupont, Tyquan Ford, Teyonah Parris

Director: Angel Manuel Soto

Screenwriter: Sherman Payne

Story by: Barry Jenkins, Chris Boyd, Kirk Sullivan

Producers: Caleeb Pinkett, Clarence Hammond, Marc Bienstock?

Executive producers: Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, James Lassiter

Director of photography: Katelin Arizmendi

Editor:? Luis Carballar

Production designer: Scott Dougan

Music: Alex Somers?

Casting: Lindsay Graham Ahanonu, Mary Vernieu

Costume Designer: Kairo Courts

R-rated, 121 minutes