"12 O'Clock Boys"

To Baltimore locals, they are hooligans, illegally roaring down city streets on dirt bikes and four-wheelers, performing stunts that endanger themselves and nearby pedestrians. To 13-year-old Pug, however, they are heroes, and the kid can hardly wait ’til he’s old enough to join their ranks. Director Lotfy Nathan spent three years watching Pug pursue his goal, blending a personalized profile of a boy-on-the-brink with terrific, up-close footage of the Baltimore street riders in “12 O’Clock Boys.” Though lacking the uplift of “Paris Is Burning” or “Rize,” Nathan’s energetic debut should spark excitement among urban auds in limited release.

Named for the most famous of Baltimore’s dirt-bike groups, whose signature style involves riding with their front wheels angled high in the air, “12 O’Clock Boys” doesn’t pass judgment on the worrisome group activity. Instead, the pic presents things through Pug’s eyes.

With a look of pure excitement the youngster guides the director to the spot where the bikers congregate, using the police helicopters overhead to steer the way. In response to a series of mishaps, the Baltimore PD has instituted a no-chase policy with bikers, since pursuit can result in grisly accidents. But the authorities can hardly look the other way either, as the vehicles aren’t licensed for street use, and the flamboyant practice claims a dozen or so fatalities a year.

It’s easy to understand why the general public would see the Twelve O’Clock Boys as a nuisance, but Pug, lacking in positive male role models, sees in the riders something to emulate. At home, his mother Coco — a former exotic dancer — tries her best to raise the boy right, hoping that his love for animals will trump his fascination with dirt bikes, possibly even inspiring him to become a veterinarian. Older brother Tibba seems to be more grounded, but an asthma attack soon claims him, demonstrating the fleeting nature of life in Pug’s world.

The film finds Pug at a crossroads. As he grows up, the youngster once seen motoring around on an adorable junior-sized ATV becomes increasingly defiant, adopting a bad attitude and filthy vocabulary. Though the pic doesn’t over-stress the stakes of his decision, Pug must choose between responsibility and glory. With every step, he seems to be drifting away, seduced by the local attention and YouTube celebrity the Twelve O’Clock Boys enjoy.

To that end, the docu isn’t helping: Armed with a Phantom high-speed camera, second unit director Eric Blair brings back dramatic footage of Pug’s daredevil heroes, their pack riding style echoing Old West cowboy iconography. Synthesized hip-hop music with boys-choir accents elevates the lifestyle further. Dirt-bike riding impresses the girls and earns its top practitioners legendary status.

Using Baltimore’s dirt-bike groups as its entry point, the film offers a remarkable grassroots look at how the system is broken at the inner-city level. The docu makes no mention of the violent crime and drug activity frequently associated with gangs, and yet it’s clear that the bikers represent the same bad influence that Pug’s mom is battling for her son’s allegiance.

Nathan also speaks with several police officers, getting both sides of a controversial case in which a fatality stoked anti-police sentiment. The film provides an encouraging note in the concern of community members, who repeatedly offer guidance and support to the teen, though what they have to offer can hardly compete with biker culture.

12 O’Clock Boys

(Documentary) Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 15, 2013. Running time: 74 MIN.

A Framework Images, Prospekt, Aletherium, Mission Film presentation. (International sales: ICM Partners, Los Angeles.) Produced by Lotfy Nathan, John Kassab, Eric Blair. Executive producer, Taylor Gillespie.

Directed by Lotfy Nathan. Camera (color, HD), Nathan; editor, Thomas Niles; music, Joe Williams; additional music, Schwartz; music supervisor, Williams; sound, Williams; supervising sound editor, Perry Levy; re-recording mixer, Eric Milano; associate producer, Tom Colley, Ross Finkel, Ted Marcus, Trevor Martin, Jon Paley, Patrick Wright; second unit director, Eric Blair.

With: Pug, Coco, Steven, Wheelie Wayne, Superman, Bam, Shawn Sean, Kevin.

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