It is hard not to be impressed by what is so vividly and palpably presented in “Charm City Kings”, a rough but electrifying mix of typical coming-of-age tale and gritty crime drama. While its story and characters are familiar to the core, the movie often captivates us via its specific local mood and details in addition to a number of skillful visual moments to be admired, and that is more than enough to forgive most of its notable shortcomings in my trivial opinion.
The story, which is inspired by Lofty Nathan’s documentary film “12 O’Clock Boys” (2013), is mainly told through the viewpoint of Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a little adolescent boy living in a slum neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland along with his mother and younger sister. Like his dear older brother who died under a rather unspecified tragic circumstance, Mouse has been obsessed with motorbikes despite his mother’s strong disapproval, and he and his two close friends have been looking forward to going to “the Ride”, an upcoming local summer event where many local motorcyclists will do some daring stunts in front of their enthusiastic neighbors.
Although he only has a shabby old four-wheel motorbike he recently managed to acquire, Mouse aspires to make a good impression on others at the Ride, and he becomes more motivated especially after he succeeds in drawing the attention of a new girl in the neighborhood. Shortly after he spots the girl during the Ride, he decides to do a very risky stunt with his motorbike, but, of course, he only ends up having a big moment of embarrassment in the end.
And then the other thing subsequently happens to draw the attention of him and many others at the Ride. A bunch of motorcyclists, who are the members of a local biker gang organization named the Midnight Clique, enter the scene, and they begin to show some pretty cool stunts in front of others, but then they are soon interrupted by those police officers who have monitored the crowd right from the beginning. When two of the gang members deliberately provoke the police officers and then swiftly drive away from them, the movie promptly serves us a smooth and breathtaking chase sequence, and you may actually find wondering about the safety measures during the shooting of this superlative moment.
Mainly because his dead older brother was actually the member of the Midnight Clique, Mouse has yearned to join the gang someday just like his two friends. After attending the Ride, they eventually decide to become more active in the pursuit of their little ambition, so they boldly approach to the members of the Midnight Clique at one night, but, not so surprisingly, they only find themselves ridiculed and then ignored.
When he is subsequently left alone, Mouse happens to draw the attention of Blax (Meek Mill), an ex-con who was the member of the Midnight Clique but has stayed away from the bunch as much as possible since he was recently released from prison. Because he knew Mouse’s dead old brother, Blax decides to take Mouse under his wing, and Mouse starts to go through a sort of training at a garage where Blax has earned his living via fixing motorbikes and other vehicles.
As days goes by, Blax gradually becomes a mentor figure for Mouse, but their relationship inevitably comes to be affected by their harsh and violent world. After Mouse made a very big mistake at one point, he and his friends witness how unforgiving Blax and his former criminal associates can be, but then Mouse eventually allows himself to be associated with the Midnight Clique, and Blax does not do much about that even though he is clearly aware of what can possibly happen to Mouse in the end.
During its last act where both Blax and Mouse fatefully come to face the consequences of their respective choices and actions, the screenplay by Sherman Payne, which is based on the story written by Kirk Sullivan, Chris Boyd, and Barry Jenkins, unfortunately resorts to a series of plot contrivances. Fortunately for us, the movie keeps holding our attention thanks to its authentic local atmosphere coupled with several technically impressive moments including one intense sequence where cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi’s camera fluidly and briskly follows a motorbike driven at high speed.
Above all, the main characters in the film are depicted well with considerable personality and humanity, and they are also played well by the main cast members. As the beating heart and soul of the movie, young actor Jahi Di’Allo Winston is simply captivating to watch, and his dynamic acting here in this film suggests that we may see more of his undeniable talent during next several years. While Meek Mill, who has mainly been known for his rap music career, has enough gravitas for his supporting character, Will Catlett provides an effective counterpoint as a local cop who genuinely cares about Mouse, and Teyonah Parris is also solid as a woman who has struggled with many daily matters besides her increasingly problematic son.
In conclusion, “Charm City Kings” does not surprise us much in terms of story and characters, but it is packed with enough mood and emotional intensity to make us care about its story and characters, and director Angel Manuel Soto and his cast and crew members did a commendable job on the whole. Although it still could be polished a bit more, that is just a minor complaint from me, and I will not deny that I had quite an interesting time with this small but ferocious piece of work.