Miami 2020 Review: CHARM CITY KINGS, The Family We Have, The Family We Make
Mouse (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) loves two things above all else: animals and dirt bikes. His natural affinity for caring leads him to a part-time job at a local veterinary clinic, but now that summer has arrived, his Sundays will be spent watching 'The Ride', a very unofficial event in Baltimore, where the city's best dirt bike riders speed down the streets, showing off their impressive moves until they get shut down by the cops. Mouse thinks he has a way in, but this summer's journey is going to take a lot more out of him than he even knows he has.
Taking cues from the 2013 documentary 12 O'Clock about the dirt bikers, Charm City Kings, directed by Angel Manuel Soto and written by Sherman Payne, follows Mouse over that fateful summer, when his wins are big but his losses are greater. Following a very well-worn path of the coming-of-age story, with adults portrayed as archetypes and children trying to prove themelves in the summer heat, the film nonetheless has such a vibrant drive, isn't afraid of the darkness, and features stellar performances by its young cast, that you're quite happy to go along for the ride.
Mouse and his friends Lamont (Donielle Tremaine Hansley) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis) are enamoured with the Midnight Clique, the best riders in the city; Mouse convinces the new girl in the neighbourhood, Nicki (Chandler DuPont) to watch them ride; and him on his new wheels, that saldy he's not so adept at riding yet. But soon he's taken under the wing of Blax (Meek Mill), who teaches Mouse how to build his own bike. Soon he's given up his vet job, to the chargin of his mother, and his mentor, Detective Rivers (William Catlett), both of whom do not want to see Mouse end up dead like his older brother.
Soto and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi don't shy away from showing these working class neighbourhoods as old and tired, but they show the joy on the streets, the friendship between the people, and the glory of these bike riders. Their skills and their tricks easily convey the power that they would hold over someone like Mouse. He has everything in front of him to lead a decent life (good parent, good mentor, a genuine calling); and yet, the ghost of his brother hangs over him, pushing him into a world that he's ill-equipped for, even if he learns quickly how to speak its language.
Given that Mouse has these good people around him, and that Blax seems to want to help the boy as oppose to seeing him harmed as his brother was, it seems a bit odd that Mouse would so easily slip away from his good job at the vet's, and into one where he is (presumably) delivering drugs and money between the Clique and other gangs. But the power of money (even if it is to help his family) and the cool factor of the Midnight Clique is hard to be diswayed from. But it often feels as if, in replicated a typical formula, the story gets lost without some specific detail: we only see The Ride once, and there are some very stereotyped images of good cops and bad criminals which would belie the realities of life for Black Americans in Baltimore.
What it may lack in originaity of story, it more than makes up for in characters and the connections between them. Despite what might seem to be two-dimensional people at first, just a few scenes give each of them a multitude of layers and complexities. Winston plays Mouse with no pretention, wearing his heart and his soul outside his body, moving with the determination of an adult and the innocence of a child, caught as any 13-year-old would be in the chaos of adolescence. Mill and Catlett act as not-very-opposed father figures - one trying to stay clean, the other already there - both wanting what's best for Mouse even as they try to give him what he wants. You can easily see how it won a Special Jury Away at Sundance for Best Ensemble Cast.
While its two-hour running time means that there are some points that drag a little, it revelas the complexities of life in this Baltimore neighbourhood and its inhabitants so well, that you wish you could sit on the porch and listen to their conversations and watch them fly by on their bikes.
Charm City Kings
- Angel Manuel Soto
- Sherman Payne (screenplay by)
- Barry Jenkins (story by)
- Kirk Sullivan (story by)
- Christopher M. Boyd (story by)
- Milan Ray
- Teyonah Parris
- Jahi Di'Allo Winston
- William Catlett