Charm City Kings is about Mouse, a teenage boy from West Baltimore who looked up to his big brother and the guys his brother rode dirt bikes with, the Midnight Clique. Mouse wants nothing more than to get his bike and join the MNC, but several mentors including his mother who doesn't want to lose another son to the streets, a police officer who gets him into an internship position with a veterinarian, and the former leader of MNC who teaches Mouse how to build bikes, not just ride them try desperately to keep him from that life. Yet, the pull of his brother is too strong and Mouse might fall down the wrong path if he doesn't realize his talents lie elsewhere. The film stars Jahi Di'Allo Winston, William Catlett, Meek Mill, Donielle T. Hansley Jr., Kezii Curtis, Chandler DuPont, Lakeyria Doughty, Pacino Braxton, and Teyonah Parris. The film is directed by Angel Manuel Soto and is written by Sherman Payne from a story by Barry Jenkins, Kirk Sullivan, and Christopher M. Boyd. The film is streaming exclusively on HBO Max.
This is a really interesting coming of age story. Typically the lead teenager is struggling to find what he's good at or already embroiled too deeply in the life of the neighborhood to get himself free, but Mouse knows pretty well who he is. He knows he's really good with animals and knows he wants to ride with the Midnight Clique. What holds him back is always what holds kids like Mouse back, money.
As many films before it have stated as eloquently as Charm City Kings, there's never enough money unless one's willing to compromise to find it. Capitalism allows for the degradation of people who are not born into already relative comfort. The fallacy presented by capitalism is that someone can wok their way up from nothing and then become something. That idea never takes into account the dozens upon hundreds of roadblocks. Capitalism is about survival and while Mouse knows he can survive, he'd rather thrive and that's his downfall.
What also sets this film apart is the structure of the mentorship. It's so rare that people are genuinely looking out for a teenager like Mouse, but two men go about it in their own way. Rivers provides the opportunity. He gets Mouse involved at the vet clinic, he checks in on him and gets him out of trouble. Blax provides skills and hard work. He teaches Mouse the ins and outs of the bike and how to assemble it, clean it and maintain it, while also giving survival skills to make it through every day on the streets. The two different approaches are unique and provide ways for Mouse to avoid his fate. The two mentors want to be the big brother Mouse no longer has, but the pull of the memory of his actual big brother is a stronger pull. It's a great dichotomy and even when Rivers and Blax are at odds, they're on the same side, which is a great addition to this story.
Another great thing about Charm City Kings is all of the truly incredible footage of the dirt bike riders. Director Angel Manuel Soto and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi have put together some of the most exciting and intriguing action I've seen this year. The stunts are awe inspiring, but the way Arizmendi moves the camera through shots, creating an immersion for the audience and then letting that flow into a chase that's truly dazzling. I was so impressed with all of the scenes of this film even the quiet ones that tell the more dramatic sides of the story.
Impressed seems like too small of a word to use when I describe Jahi Di'Allo Winston's performance. There's something so sublime and natural about his performance. He easily flits between the charming, sort of lecherous cad when he's wooing Nicki to the street tough kid who stands up to guys twice his size. His smile lights up the screen and his tears break your heart in two. I'm very excited to see what's next for him.
Charm City Kings is a heartbreaking, thrilling, and funny movie. It's got the beats of a great coming of age film, while also showing the subgenre some new tricks. Watch the film for the incredible stunts and dynamic camera work, but stay for the great story and characters. Seek this one out.