Before HBO Max’s latest “Charm City Kings," I admittedly knew nothing about the world dirt bike riders on the streets of Baltimore. However, after seeing the film, it surprised me how that only serves as a device for a coming of age story. The story follows a young 14-year-old boy named Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who’s desperate to join the biker gang “The Midnight Clique” who owns the streets of Baltimore. Accompanied by his two best friends Lamont and Sweartagawd (Donielle T. Halsey Jr. and Kezii Curtis) they set out for a summer they’ll never forget. While that premise makes this sound like a comedy, there’s a realism here about growing up in a world you shouldn’t be. Particularly, a life of crime when you’re just a naive child.
One of the resounding themes of the film is the temptation in a life of excess and eventual crime. Winston starts the film as someone who’s on the path to go to veterinary school but is blindsided by the “Cliques’” gangster lifestyle. It’s certainly not the most original idea, but what gives it some flare are the mentors in Mouse’s life that try to steer him in the right direction. They come in his life as a detective played by William Catlett, and a reformed criminal played by rapper/actor Meek Mill who may not be as out of the life as he says. The contrast of both “good” and “bad” plays nicely as two positive role models for Mouse as a character. In large part, that narrative arch wouldn’t work as well without the writing and general story.
With the film having several story credits, there is one in particular that I’d like to highlight: The best picture winner from the 89th Academy Awards, director Barry Jenkins. “Charm City Kings” feels like a Jenkins film. There’s a youthful honesty to the world portrayed here, much like his 2016 film “Moonlight,” that is both haunting and fascinating. The risk to delve into a life of crime versus staying on a more narrow path, makes for an incredibly moving story. Thankfully it’s a gamble that pays off due to who’s behind the camera.
First-time feature director Angel Manuel Soto clearly understands what type of film he wants to make. Between the coming of age story and a diagnosis of contemporary street culture, it makes for incredibly compelling cinematics. The way he shoots the bike sequences, especially the first one Mouse sees, is so visually thrilling to watch play out on the screen. My biggest issue is how the film really doesn’t explore some very relevant ideas, particularly amongst the Black Lives Matter movement. It is not specifically mentioned, but you can tell that it's designed to make an audience think about what the repercussions of these actions could be in today's world. Now, I want to make clear that I did not go in looking for any sort of political subtext to this story. In how it is presented, I strongly believe some of this could really add some needed emotional weight.
With the film’s release on HBO Max, it makes me happy to know it could have a bigger audience. There’s a lot to like and some things to even love, I just wanted the satire to blend with the coming of age story. Tonally, it’s a tricky thing to pull off and there isn’t any intention for what I wanted. What we’re given here is an incredibly compelling story about adolescence that has a bit of everything. It doesn’t quite nail it all, but what does work is done with exceptional charm, wit and heart. For something you can watch from the comfort of your own home, you really can’t do better.