Watching Charm City Kings gave me a feeling similar to the one I got in August of 1991, when I saw John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood for the first time. Both are enlightening portraits of young people trapped in a socioeconomic system that doesn't afford them many ways out. Both have a prominent rapper delivering unexpectedly strong work in a key role. And both had me vowing to follow their directors wherever their careers may take them. Few films can match the excellence level of Singleton's masterpiece; Angel Manuel Soto's picture, which debuts on HBO Max October 8, comes pretty close, though.
Mouse (Jahi Di'Allo Winston, in a powerful performance) is an adolescent living in West Baltimore. His older brother, a motorcycle trick rider, died in an accident – an incident from which he's never emotionally recovered. Mouse nevertheless maintains a strong interest in “the Ride,” a weekly unauthorized showcase for daredevil trick riders that takes place on one of the city's streets. He gets an opportunity to enter that world when Blax (rapper Meek Mill), an ex-con who now operates a garage, offers him an apprenticeship. In exchange for helping out around the place, Mouse is free to have all the parts he needs to fix up a bike, plus the chance to get some pointers.
The arrangement is easier than it seems. Blax is loosely connected to some motorcycle-riding drug dealers, and Mouse is tempted to join forces with them to help his mother out financially. His buddies, Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis), are already leaning in that direction. None of this sits well with Nicki (Chandler DuPont), a new girl in the neighborhood Mouse has his eye on. Nor is it a popular choice with Rivers (William Catlett), the detective who's been trying to take Mouse under his wing.
Charm City Kings works because of two things: 1.) the story; and 2.) the way Soto tells the story. On that first count, we're plunged onto the streets of West Baltimore and, more crucially, into Mouse's life. He's poor, and his vision for getting out is to become a successful rider. That requires money, though, so he's back to square one unless he can find a way to get some. The movie potently conveys that irony, as well as the idea that pipe dreams and crime are the sole options for some people, and one of them is way more simple to make happen than the other.
With that idea in place, Soto shoots Charm City Kings to have a sense of you-are-there immediacy. He uses long takes, where the camera moves along with the characters as events happen around them. For example, the first time we see Mouse going to the Ride, the camera follows him as he walks there, greets friends, maneuvers to the front so he can see the action, and then turns around to get his own four-wheeler. Other times, there are very complex shots as vehicles move around, including a magnificent motorcycle/police car chase. The effect of this approach gives the movie urgency.
One of the basics of Mouse's life is that he has different dynamics with different people. He shows a smooth side to Nicki, yet presents himself as tougher and more fearless than he really is to the members of the bike gang. To the well-intentioned Rivers, it's defiance, bordering on resentment. With Blax, he humbles himself a bit, displaying a little vulnerability. Winston hits every note right, as does Meek Mill, who invests Blax with a sense of regret that matches Mouse's inner sorrow. The interactions between these troubled characters provides the soul of Charm City Kings. One's potentially on the wrong path, the other someone who's spent most of his life on the wrong path and doesn't want to see a decent kid flush his life down the drain.
Sherman Payne's screenplay guides Mouse, Blax, and Rivers to an explosive finale that delves into themes of guilt and redemption. Charm City Kings, aided in part by Katelin Arizmendi's first-rate cinematography, has a gritty, authentic vibe to accentuate what happens in the plot. The picture is a dazzling inner city story that details what it's like to be young, ambitious, and at a crossroads where your whole life will be affected by the road taken.
out of four
Charm City Kings is rated R for pervasive language, sexual references and some violence. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.