Like Concrete Cowboy, Charmed City Kings is a fairly standard coming-of-age tale given new life thanks to a unique setting. Inspired by Lofty Nathan’s 2013 documentary, 12 O’Clock Boys, Charmed City Kings is set within the world of Baltimore dirt bike riders, renowned for their stunt riding and idealized, vertical wheelies. Jahi Di’Allo Winston (Queen & Slim) stars as Mouse, a 13-year-old admirer of the local dirt bike riders in his Baltimore neighborhood. His brother, however, has recently passed, and Mouse is kept on a straighter path, cajoled by his single mother (Teyonah Parris) and school-assigned mentor, a detective named Rivers (William Catlett, Black Lightning). Mouse works at a local vet’s office, a nod to his dream of becoming a veterinarian, but nothing can keep Mouse away from the dirt bike scene, and eventually he connects with Blax (Meek Mill), leader of the most feared and renowned bike gang in the city.
Even with its subculture setting, Charm City Kings would be pretty rote coming-of-age stuff, were it not for Jahi Di’Allo Winston and Meek Mill. Winston is affecting as Mouse, stewing in adolescent hormones, grief, and the pressure of not only keeping up a tough façade with his friends, but also bringing home money to help his mom. You can feel his angst, and Winston is charismatic enough that you root for Mouse even as he is committing to obviously wrong paths and piling folly on top of felony. And Meek Mill jumps easily from hip-hop stage to film set, giving a quietly commanding performance as Blax. He turns what could have been a stereotypical “Mr. Miyagi” role—it’s so blatant the film itself pokes fun at the wise, older mentor/impressionable mentee convention—into something unexpectedly soft. He infuses Blax with a tangible weariness and palpable frustration with Mouse’s obstinate, reckless behavior.
Outside of these two performances, though, Charm City Kings is largely what you expect. There is the requisite good girl on the block, the temptation of fast, easy money, the inevitable fight with Mouse’s frustrated mother, and an obviously terrible plan goes exactly as badly as you expect. Director Angel Manuel Soto (The Farm) punches up the film with footage of stunt riding on the dirt bikes, and an early car chase scene is truly impressive and hints at what Soto might do in the future. But outside the bike culture stuff, Charm City Kings coasts on a well-trod path, scripted by Shameless writer Sherman Payne (working off a story by Chris Boyd, Kirk Sullivan, and Barry Jenkins). Some of that is down to conventions of genre—coming-of-stories will always involve big life lessons and clashes with authority figures. But I do wonder if some of the familiarity of the story is to help make this subculture, little seen by mainstream America, feel more accessible (ditto for Concrete Cowboy).
Even with its familiar story beats, though, Charm City Kings is an above-average coming-of-age story. It’s easy to root for Mouse, even when he screws up, which is the most important element of a coming-of-age story. You have to want the kid(s) to succeed, and you definitely want things to work out for Mouse. You also want things to work out for Blax, even if the stakes are higher for him and a second chance feels further out of reach. As he says to Mouse, “Men like us don’t get second chances.” It would have been nice if Charm City Kings found a way to upend those expectations, but even going the standard way, Blax’s relationship with Mouse is still effective. Thanks to Meek Mill and Winston, Charm City Kings has a lot of heart underpinning the flashy trappings of the bike riders’ subculture. And damn, that car chase really is cool.
Charm City Kings is now streaming on HBO Max.