Charm City Kings is an effective coming of age drama that never condescends to its characters. Directed with skill and empathy by Angel Manuel Soto, it plunges us into West Baltimore, a place where violence and crime reverberates on everyone. You remember this is the neighborhood where The Wire took place, and these characters are also aware of it (at one point, the hero wears a t-shirt that references Stringer Bell and the others). If The Wire was anthropological in its approach, then Charm City Kings is more immediately absorbing. It is easy to care about these kids because they are all so painfully vulnerable.
In a commanding performance, Jahi Di’Allo Winston plays Mouse. He is a rising eighth grader who idolizes the dirt bike gang who perform in the neighborhood. On every Sunday over the summer, these riders perform dangerous stunts and show off for anyone who wants to watch. Mouse tries to join them with a stunt of his own, and crashes almost immediately. Smart and eager, Mouse realizes he must walk before he can run, so he heads to a garage where bikes are repaired. The garage is run by Blax (Meek Mill), an ex-con who commands respect through hard-earned wisdom. Mouse flourishes under Blax’s tutelage, although he is adjacent to gang violence in a way that is more dangerous than he realizes.
The script by Sherman Payne has admirable self-awareness in it. Aside from the aforementioned references to The Wire, the characters say Blax is like Mouse’s Mr. Miyagi. Payne and Soto are aware of how this film fits into a long storytelling tradition, and these references signal the care they give this material. Still, the film’s biggest influence is not The Wire, The Karate Kid, or even Boyz n the Hood. It is, strangely enough, Good Will Hunting. Mouse is caught between two father figures, both of whom want what’s best for him and disagree how to go about it. In addition to Blax, there is Detective Rivers (Will Catlett), a cop who connected to Mouse through a police outreach program. Neither of these men are pushovers, leading to a tense scene where they discuss (almost respectfully) what the boy needs.
On top of all that, Soto ably veers between a “boots on the ground” approach and a dreamlike quality. His camera glides over his characters, and the cumulative effect is not grim poverty porn, but an almost ordinary neighborhood. Some sequences have the energy they deserve, like a lengthy car chase, but mostly Soto has the patience to actually listen. There are many times where Soto eases up on the stylized flourishes, letting the drama unfold with minimal edits. One of the film’s best scenes involves Mouse and his friends confronting a man who stole his bike. There are many reversals, leading to an explosive release of suspense that, handled differently, would be way too excessive. How everyone reacts to the sudden violence says more about this community than dialogue preceding it.
No character in Charm City Kings is a pushover. Teyonah Parris plays Terri, Mouse’s mother, and her style of parenting strikes a plausible balance between affection and tough love. There is the obligatory scene where she and Mouse have a huge fight, except her and Winston do not play it safe. The stakes are real, even if the scene is similar to countless others we have seen before. Then there is Nicki (Chandler Dupont), a girl from California who is visiting Baltimore for the summer. Her and Mouse form a quiet bond, and the film avoids any predictable romantic theatrics. Instead, we ultimately get the sense that Mouse is a good, smart kid who could easily be led down the wrong direction. That back and forth is what gives the film its power.
If you live in Baltimore or DC, perhaps you have seen the dirt bike gangs in your neighborhood. They are a menace, disobeying traffic laws and blowing through traffic – including pedestrian traffic – with reckless abandon. They are followed by the police, of course, but they are not chased (the official MPD policy is that chasing them would be more dangerous). Soto wisely avoids the complications of these displays, and instead presents the gang as a fantasy, an opportunity to escape the doldrums and possibilities of life in West Baltimore. Charm City Kings never wanders beyond the neighborhood, but carefully suggests that – for kids like Mouse, at least – there is a life beyond it.
Charm City Kings is available to stream on HBO Max.