Written by: Sherman Payne
Starring: Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Meek Mill, Will Catlett, Teyonah Parris
Different cultures have established unique aspects of their area people just come together to experience. A newcomer would have no idea of it unless they’re entrenched into the local scene to experience it firsthand or just happen to have it all explained to them. Specifically in Baltimore, Maryland, it centers on doing stunts on motorbikes through the streets. With this communal activity in mind, Charm City Kings also displays the loss of innocence where three kids try so hard to ingratiate themselves into the culture and they find a reality with some hard truths.
14-year-old Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo) lives with his younger sister and single working mother, Terri (Teyonah Parris). With his mother attending night school and working on the weekends, Mouse finally sees the opportunity for him to attend the weekly Sunday “The Ride” where everyone gathers and shows off their motorbike skills. At this event, Mouse and his two young friends try to join a particular group of riders called Midnight Clique, who are known for more than just riding their bikes.
The fascination these kids have with attaining a motorbike matches the level of many absurd things children have an obsession with achieving due to its status symbol. In Baltimore, having a motorbike means a level of coolness these kids desperately seek, and evidently, they’re willing to get involved in some seedy work in order to attain one. At its core, Charm City Kings tells the story of a generational battle for what kind of future the upcoming youths should have. Mouse has a history with the Midnight Clique and the whole motorbike scene as his older brother got involved with them and subsequently died due to his involvement. This certainly has made an impact on Mouse, but also his mother, who strictly forbids him to ever get involved with this scene, even to the point where she does not allow him to attend “The Ride” each Sunday. A pain continually lingers around this sore spot as the film shows footage of the older brother and how beloved he was by the community. Mouse going down this path becomes the focal point of the story and many interested parties have decisions to make in the process.
While Charm City Kings undoubtedly mostly stays at the narrative level of the young teenagers, the adults and their influence play a major part in the story. Along with Mouse’s mother, who works hard just to provide for her kids, there’s also Mouse’s program mentor, Detective Rivers (Will Catlett), and local celebrity Blax (Meek Mill). Detective Rivers wants Mouse to follow the love he has displayed for his animals since he was young and become a veterinarian, while Blax represents the lifestyle the young kid wants to achieve. As stated in the film, Blax is the Michael Jordan of West Baltimore and Mouse’s brother ran with his crew. The relationship between the young protagonist and this man strikes an emotionally potent chord because of where Blax has found himself in life and what he wants Mouse to avoid. Recently out of prison and on parole, Blax tries to take the young kid under his wing because of the guilt of what occurred with the deceased older brother. Blax struggles with trying to keep Mouse on a straight path even with all of the alluring aspects of the life he used to have beginning to pull in the teenager as well.
This push and pull for Mouse seemingly comes solely from the appearance to have a bike and impress everyone in the neighborhood, but it also comes from a place of masculinity and eventually money. Jahi Di’Allo does incredibly well in portraying Mouse with one of the great youth performances one will see all year. He carries the legitimate excitement for the potential of getting a motorbike while handling the weight on his shoulders for the struggling financial situation of his family. Di’Allo matches the emotionally intense moments in conveying the attitude of someone his age, the good and the bad. With him being a surprise, another one came in Meek Mill’s performance. The Philadelphia-born rapper’s appearance as Blax surprised me for a strictly Baltimore story considering his association with his home city but he was truly impressed in this role. The character of Blax could have easily been this over the top character, but Meek Mill delivers such a restrained and sensitive performance to display someone trying to move forward in life and atone for his sins as well.
The narrative delivers several brutal gut-punches with scenes that push these characters to their breaking point, but it also captures the glee of what it means to ride these motorbikes in the streets. The scenes where the police chase some of the Midnight Clique contain some thrilling camerawork to show the danger of how these people ride but also the thrill they get out of it. Those scenes carry so much energy in conjunction with the soundtrack to be thoroughly entertaining in the execution and make us root for these criminals evading law enforcement.
With all of the adult conversations held in the film, Charm City Kings never loses its identity of showing this story through the lens of these teenagers. They get so worried about their reputation and what a motorbike could provide them that they’re willing to do illicit activities. It becomes evident riding these bikes becomes more than what sits on the surface and the film smartly blocks out some of the details that remain unimportant for the children to know but any adult can ascertain. Overall, an emotionally resonant and incredibly energetic love letter to a specific culture within Baltimore and one where the older generation tries to break the cycles of pain in their community.