They’re a Baltimore staple—an inspiration to many, an aggravation to the Man. The 12 O’Clock Boys: a dirt-bike gang who ride, often recklessly, around city streets on souped-up motorbikes and ATVs, popping the jaw-dropping vertical wheelies that gave them their chronometric nickname. Lotfy Nathan’s engrossing if slightly slapdash documentary chronicles three years in the life of one of the group’s prospects, the ingratiatingly flippant Pug—small-framed, tart tongued and ferociously intelligent. We meet him as an energetic 13-year-old, already practicing his four-wheeler moves and harboring a parallel passion for animals. He wants to be a veterinarian when he grows up, though the call of the Boys is stronger and (so the doc pointedly implies) a more realistic goal, given Pug’s inner-city social status.
At its best, the film plays as an on-the-ground critique of systemic racism and ghettoization. It’s true that Nathan sees a little too much magical-realist allure in his young protagonist’s vroom-vroom idols. (Many of the illegal stunts are filmed in rhapsodic slo-mo that gives them a cringeworthy Beasts of the Southern Wild affect.) Yet the director is also cuttingly aware of the corrupt outside forces that birthed the Boys, for better and for worse. There are the police officers who, forbidden by their never-seen higher-ups to chase the bikers, act out in dehumanizing, occasionally destructive ways. There are the tsk-tsking news reports, interspersed throughout, that act as a patronizing Greek chorus. Perhaps the most barbed moment comes when a Malickesque image of a bird soaring overhead smash-cuts to a droning police helicopter, a seemingly facile bit of poetry suddenly recontextualized in satiric (and horrific) ways. There’s bleakness in the beauty: What begins as a personal coming-of-age story ends as a tragic tale of a community’s stunted adolescence.
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