Like any self-respecting teenager, Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), the protagonist of the West Baltimore-set indie drama “Charm City Kings,” likes to express a healthy disdain for the popular culture of yesteryear. Not for something as relatively recent as “The Wire,” one of the greatest shows ever made about his home city, which Mouse salutes by wearing a T-shirt covered with names like Avon and Stringer. He’s less enthusiastic about Tupac, who grew up in Baltimore and “died like a million years ago,” he scoffs, when pressed about why he’s never been a fan.
At one point, his pal Lamont (Donielle Tremaine Hansley) makes scornful reference to “The Karate Kid,” pointing out that his latest father figure — and he has more than one — is giving off serious Mr. Miyagi vibes. It’s an amusing exchange, in part because the characters are knocking gently on the fourth wall, invoking an earlier movie in order to explain and rationalize their own narrative derivations. Recycling is fine so long as you acknowledge what you’re doing, or so the logic goes.
And “Charm City Kings,” directed by Puerto Rico-born filmmaker Angel Manuel Soto (“La Granja”) from a script by Sherman Payne, is eager to signal its self-awareness, perhaps because it traffics fairly openly, though not always predictably, in cliché. The story, which was conceived by Chris Boyd, Kirk Sullivan and Barry Jenkins, is a slick, appealing blend of summertime coming-of-ager and cautionary crime thriller. Mouse, a smart, sensitive kid, loves animals and has a part-time job at a veterinary hospital. But he also looks longingly at the dirt-bike riders who tear up the streets every Sunday, their wild stunts and flashy armor drawing wary cops and adoring crowds alike.
Mouse, who hangs out with his buddies Lamont and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis), dreams of joining the riders’ ranks. But his hard-working mom (Teyonah Parris) tries to dissuade him, lest he go the way of his older brother (a briefly seen Tyquan Ford), who rode with a dirt-bike gang and died tragically sometime earlier. Really, the entire neighborhood seems to have a stake in Mouse’s decision, whether it’s a concerned cop (Will Catlett) who wants to keep him on the straight and narrow, or Blax (rapper Meek Mill), an ex-con mechanic whose garage becomes both a refuge from danger and a possible gateway into it.
Their general concern for Mouse’s well-being, which he sometimes chafes against, feels genuine enough, which is largely a credit to the excellent actors. (The ensemble cast won a prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.) Your attention is more than engaged by Mill’s watchful calm, Parris’ moving angst and especially Winston’s shrewd mix of vulnerability, pluck and charisma, even when the script shifts gears as loudly and unsubtly as the motorbikes. The riders’ stunts, their cop-dodging sharp turns and ridiculously vertical wheelies, are the movie’s raison d’être, shot with propulsive energy by Katelin Arizmendi and sharply edited together by Luis Carballar.
Those sequences, and Mouse’s own story, were loosely inspired by “12 O’Clock Boys,” Lotfy Nathan’s 2013 documentary about Baltimore’s dirt-bike scene. And “Charm City Kings” fittingly feels like an absorbing but muddled weave of authenticity and artifice. Its concern for the plight of young, susceptible Black men like Mouse is at first deftly understated, until the story begins to tilt into gang-warfare convolutions and some unsettling if strategically deployed violence.
You become aware that so many of the supporting characters — an Asian American couple who own a convenience store (Hyonkyung Kate O’Leary and Arnold Kim), a likable love interest (Chandler DuPont) and even Sweartagawd, who’s basically comic relief until he isn’t — seem to have little narrative function or inner life apart from Mouse. They’re there to take him down, prop him up and teach him lessons about life. “Charm City Kings” clearly knows what it’s doing; unfortunately, what it’s doing is often just as obvious to us.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.