“Charm City Kings,” directed by Angel Manuel Soto and written by Sherman Payne, is an earnest coming-of-age story about a Baltimore 14-year-old named Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) torn between joining the Midnight Clique, an extreme dirt bike crime gang in stormtrooper-esque shiny white breastplates, or becoming a veterinarian. While that setup might make eyes roll, it’s inspired by the 2013 documentary “12 O’Clock Boys,” in which an actual kid (real name Pug) wrestled with those same options. (Chris Boyd, Kirk Sullivan, Barry Jenkins adapted the story, and one of Pug’s hometown daredevils, Lakeyria Doughty, aka “Wheelie Queen,” makes a cameo here.) The film’s truly ridiculous plot choices — the phony twists that make you leave the theater feeling like you’ve inhaled a tank of carbon monoxide — are its own invention, bolted onto a likable, if formulaic, charmer.
Soto opens on home movie-style footage of Mouse’s older brother Stro (Tyquan Ford) pushing himself to “hit 12,” rearing up on his bike’s back wheel until he’s as straight as a clock hand. Stro, who’s shot and killed soon after, looks as mythologically cool as the Marlboro Man. No wonder Mouse wants to become him, frustrating his mother (Teyonah Parris) and local cop Detective Rivers (Will Catlett), who patrols the streets with little else on his mind than lecturing the kid about responsibility.
Mouse calls Rivers when he’s in a jam — say, when he buys a junky ATV and gets instantly pulled over by the police. (Baltimore has banned dirt-bikes, though it’s also instituted a do-not-chase rule to avoid high-speed accidents.) But Mouse, a kid who’s grown up with the tragedy of Freddie Gray, understandably sees Rivers as a sell-out. “Snitches ride shotgun,” he sneers, jumping out of Rivers’ car before he’s spotted by his friends Lamont and Sweartagawd (Donielle Tremaine Hansley and Kezii Curtis, both charismatic).
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The question at the heart of “Charm City Kings” is, “Who truly cares about young black boys?” (Though all the attention is focused on Mouse. Would-be mentors mostly ignore his friends for no obvious reason other than they’re a little lazier.) Mouse isn’t sure what kind of care he wants. He rejects authoritarian hardliners like Rivers and his mom (Teyonah Parris), whose character has softened from the doc from a former stripper to an aspiring nurse. Instead, Mouse is drawn to monkish ex-con Blax (musician Meek Mill in his screen debut), who wants to teach him mechanics, and Jamal (Chino), the new boss of the Midnight Clique, who offers him bikes, cash, and a pistol, knowing that what boys really want is to feel like men.
Winston plays Mouse with an easy grin and open body language. He radiates goodness, allowing him to win the trust of new-girl-on-the-block Nicki (Chandler DuPont), a prim and proper photographer who insists on calling her beau Myron. The script makes a big deal about how Nicki doesn’t have a cellphone, until suddenly she does, never acknowledging the switch. (Similarly, Mouse makes a dramatic decision to help his family pay the electric bill … and then doesn’t give his mom the money?)
Alex Somers’s ambient score telegraphs the emotional beats, its murmuring doom butting up against a soundtrack of past and present hip-hop hits. “Charm City Kings” is smart to note that kids like Mouse are from a generation bored by the same songs, and the same stereotypes. Tupac “died like a million years ago,” he says. As for “The Karate Kid,” Lamont dismisses it as “an old movie about a Chinese dude that made a white boy his slave.”
Lamont believes Mouse’s relationship with Blax isn’t much different. Why is his friend bothering to show up at 6:30 a.m. to fix engines for free? From the way cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi shoots Blax’s garage, where bikes hang from the rafters like stars in the sky, we get the appeal — not to mention the film’s fabulous bike-versus-cop chase. Blax himself is harder to grasp. Mill gives him the solidity and patience of the neighborhood sage, wisdom he picked up in prison. Yet, everyone else — especially Rivers — insists Blax is still a heartless criminal. The movie can’t bridge the gulf between Mills’ gentle performance and the other characters’ obliviousness. When it attempts to make the leap, “Charm City Kings” plummets off a cliff.
Soto seems to be driving toward a point about injustice. Yet, the film clangs like too many people took a wrench to the script. The next time someone tells a story about Baltimore’s wild youth, let it be a kid who picks up the camera.