Charm City Kings opens with grainy, documentary-style footage of a charismatic young dirt biker named Stro talking wistfully about how free his he feels when he rides. Off the bike he worries about the cops, about money, about getting hurt. On the bike, he just is. The tricks he does are crazy and gravity defying—standing on the bike seat, popping wheelies. He favors what, in Baltimore street parlance, is called the 12 o’clock, where the biker tips back on the rear wheel until the bike is completely perpendicular to the ground (i.e., at “12 o’clock”). It looks scary and death-defying because it is. Stro has a little brother named Mouse who idolizes him. “I want to be just like you like when I grow up!” Mouse proclaims. “Whatdya mean you want to be just like me?” Stro replies, scooping his kid bro up onto his bike. “You gonna be better than me!”
The camera pans back and we see that Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston)—now 14 years old—has been watching this footage on his phone. Stro is dead, not by an accident on the bike, but at the hands of gun violence on the streets of Baltimore. Mouse, who lives with his mother and younger sister in a West Baltimore rowhouse, is still dealing with his grief.
Mouse is a smart, sensitive kid who loves animals. He volunteers at the local animal hospital and does well in school. But he is also drawn to the allure of the Midnight Clique—the dirt bike gang his brother was a member of. Charm City Kings is about the battle for Mouse’s soul that occurs over the course of one pivotal summer, and how he is mentored by some unlikely people.
There’s much to recommend about the film. It was filmed in Baltimore and it shows—lots of the details are right: formstone, boarded up houses, stoops, chicken boxes, games of dice, convenience stores where you order your smokes and chips in front of a thick plexiglass barricade. It also gets the dirt biking right—the roar of the accelerating engines, the reckless weaving in and out of traffic, those crazy tricks—although an even better exploration of this subculture can be found in the documentary The 12 O’Clock Boys, which this film is loosely based on. But the film is a little too slick, entertaining, and, at times, overwrought for its own good, as though it’s torn between being a serious work of social realism and a juicy crime thriller.
Mouse has two best friends, Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis ) (say it slowly). And they are standard issue best friends in a teen drama. Lamont seems like a bit of a loose cannon, the one more likely to lead Mouse astray. Sweartagawd is loud, boisterous, funny, and fat, always rattling off sit-commy one-liners as the scenes come to a close. However, director Angel Manuel Soto does a nice job of capturing the tricky balancing act of that age: On the one hand, they’re kids—roughhousing, debating the merits of Gummy Bears, mustering up the nerve to talk to girls; on the other, they’re young men, posturing, puffing out their chests, looking for street cred.
Mouse’s dad is nowhere in sight, but he has two father figures. The first is the straight-laced Detective Rivers (William Catlett), who met Mouse at a police outreach program and has been looking out for him ever since. He gives Mouse rides and helps him stay out of trouble. He also plays old-school hip-hop in the car that Mouse hates. “You know Tupac grew up in Baltimore, right?” Rivers says. “How can I not know that,” Mouse grumbles, “it’s all you old people talk about.” (Fact check: True.) The older Mouse gets, and the less cool it is for him to be seen around a cop, the more he resents the detective’s keen interest in him.
The other father figure is Blax (rapper Meek Mill), the former head of the Midnight Clique who just got out of prison and is trying to go clean—or at least not violate his parole. He takes Mouse under his wing, teaches him to hold his head high no matter what, but may not be offering the glamorous life of bikes, danger, and money that Mouse is craving.
There is also a new girl in the neighborhood, Shay (Milan Ray), a budding photographer who adopts an almost anthropological approach to life in her new city. She likes Mouse, and brings out his sweet, goofy, romantic side—for a while at least.
As for Mouse’s mom (Teyonah Parris), she’s doing her best. She works during the day and goes to school at night. She loves her children, and we see the playful, maternal warmth she exudes when she’s able to come up for air. But she’s exhausted all the time, fretful. She’s hard on Mouse because she fears he’ll follow in his brother’s footsteps. She yells at him, curses, threatens to kick him out. Her worries aren’t exactly unfounded.
The two sides of the film—the gritty realistic side and the predictable, crowd-pleasing side—never quite reconcile. But it sure helps that the performances are so good. Winston, with his lopey, boyish energy and performative swagger, is quite strong as Mouse, as are the two young actors who play his best friends. Meek Mill impresses in his film debut, never overdoing the “hood with a heart of gold” schtick.
Ultimately, Charm City Kings passes the Baltimore smell test, which is saying a lot. It feels authentic, even if its attempt to create something mythological and grandly cinematic come off as a bit corny. And I do appreciate that this kind of Stand By Me-esque coming-of-age story focuses on Black teens. There are so many great stories out that there, yet to be told. And I like the idea that a young kid in any city—doesn’t have to be Baltimore—might recognize a bit of himself in Mouse and feel hopeful, valued, and seen.
Charm City Kings is now streaming on HBO Max.