CHARM CITY KINGS was previously reviewed at Sundance 2020 – it’s now available on HBO MAX
PLOT: A fourteen-year-old Baltimore teen, Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), falls in with a daredevil dirt bike riding crew called the Midnight Clique, whose leader, Blax (Meek Mill), he idolizes. He soon finds himself torn between two defacto father figures, Blax, and a kindly local cop, Rivers (William Catlett), both of whom want to keep Mouse out of trouble, even if the appeal of fast money on the street proves to be a temptation that’s hard to resist.
REVIEW: One of the magical things about the Sundance Film Festival is that sometimes you can walk into a movie with no expectations whatsoever, but then, just a few minutes in, you realize you’re watching something truly exceptional. The moment that got the hooks in me came pretty early in CHARM CITY KINGS. As the movie starts, we follow a boy named Mouse and his best pals, Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis), around their low-income Baltimore neighborhood getting up to relatively innocent kid stuff (talking to girls, looking at condoms in the Korean grocery), before heading to a crazy dirt bike race. There, they witness the Midnight Clique get into a wild chase with the cops with their motorcycle crew led by the cooler than cool Blax. Apparently, dirt bike culture is a real thing in Baltimore, with this inspired by a documentary called 12 O’CLOCK BOYS.
This crazy, adrenaline-pumping chase is the moment that made me sit up and take notice in a big way. Based on this scene alone, which features some insane bike stunts and camera work, Universal should give director Angel Manuel Soto a FAST & FURIOUS flick to direct, because the level of action filmmaking here is out of control amazing. Yet, CHARM CITY KINGS is more than an urban action flick. It’s one of the best coming-of-age movies in recent memory, comparable to STAND BY ME or AMERICAN GRAFFITI, albeit given an edge those movies never had as for these kids just growing up on the mean streets of Baltimore is a life or death proposition. We follow the three over probably the most important summer of their lives, as its the make or break moment that’s going to decide which direction their lives go, and it’s a thrilling piece of drama.
Jahi Di’Allo Winston deserves to become a major star thanks to his role here. His character, Mouse, is one of the best-drawn teen characters I’ve ever seen. You deeply empathize with his turmoil, with him a fatherless kid whose beloved big brother was a famous member of the Midnight Clique, but died running drugs for them, with Meek Mill’s Blax, freshly out of jail, somewhat responsible. But, he still loves Blax, and it’s easy to see why, with, as one of the kids says, Blax trying to “Mr. Miyagi” him.
Blax could have been portrayed stereotypically, but instead, he’s a thoroughly three-dimensional hero. Having just been in jail, he has no desire to go back to crime and is hell-bent on keeping Mouse from making the same mistakes him and his brother made, although he doesn’t realize that as much as he’s trying to keep him on the straight-and-narrow, he’s inadvertently turning himself into even more of a legend for Mouse to want to be like, and crime played a big part in his story. Meek Mill is outstanding, with his quiet cool making him an obvious role model for Mouse, and it’s a knockout part. He’s about as far removed from the typical tough guy gangsta as you can get. While tough, he tries to avoid violence the best the can, and isn’t afraid to show his sensitive side, with him bonding with Mouse over their shared love of dogs, with Mouse a promising orderly at an animal hospital.
By contrast, Mouse is also given another de facto father figure, a cop named Rivers who wants to encourage Mouse’s aspirations to be a vet, even if he’s not cool enough to compare with the dirt bike riding Blax. Through it all, Mouse remains our focus, but the whole cast is exceptional, with Teyonah Parris riveting as Mouse’s mom, Chandler DuPont sweet as the shy girl next door, Nicki, while Donielle T. Ansley Jr and Kezii Curtis make Mouse’s crew so likable you’ll be devastated in the final act when the harsh truths of growing up on the streets become part of the plot.
All in all, this is an extraordinary piece of work. Sundance is long on indie dramas but this one is a real “flick”, in that when Sony Classics puts this out in the spring it has a real good shot at connecting with a broad audience in a big way (UPDATE – due to COVID-19 it was sold to HBO MAX and is currently available). It’s action-packed with universal themes we can all relate to, even if our coming of age was significantly different. It’s produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith so hopefully, they use their star power to give this the launch it deserves. Even if you think this isn’t for you, go see it anyway. It’s more for you than you might think. To be succinct, this movie kicks serious ass.