On the surface, Charm City Kings seems like a fairly standard coming-of-age story. It follows a young man thinking he wants his life to be one way before learning some hard lessons that show him that he should live a different way instead. But within these broad strokes, director Angel Manuel Soto paints an exciting drama within the motorcycle culture of West Baltimore. Grounded by a sympathetic and captivating performance from young lead actor Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Charm City Kings comes alive as it explores criminal allure without feeling exploitative. Like the best coming-of-age movies, Charm City Kings knows how to play by the beats of the genre while making them feel unique and immediate.
Mouse (Winston) dreams of being a rider in The Midnight Clique, a biker gang in West Baltimore. It’s not so much the criminality that appeals to him as much as the riding does, which connects him to his departed older brother. When he comes across mechanic and ex-con Blax (Meek Mill), Winston and his friends get a chance to work on bikes with the hope of earning their very own rides. However, as bills start to pile up for Mouse’s mom (Teyonah Parris), Mouse feels like he has no choice but to get into a life of crime much to the consternation of his rival mentors Detective Rivers (William Catlett) and Blax.
The magic trick of Charm City Kings is that Soto eschews typical depictions of criminal allure and instead replaces them with the vivacity of the bike culture. I have no interest in owning or riding a motorcycle, but I was glued to my screen every time the bikes were on the screen. Part of the appeal is the crazy stunt riding that’s happening, but Soto also sells the joy and exuberance of everyone gathering to watch the riders. You can feel that the community is coming together over these rides, and you can see why Mouse wants to be a part of that beyond the love he had for his brother.
When the narrative starts to depart from bike culture, Soto heads out on a limb, but the movie continues to work because we’re so invested in these characters. The reason that Charm City Kings takes off is that like the adults in Mouse’s life, we know he’s a good kid and we want him to succeed. We’re protective of him even as he’s making bad choices, and that connection stems from Winston’s emotional performance. He’s reminiscent of a young Michael B. Jordan (perhaps because Jordan also played a teen involved in criminal activity in Baltimore on The Wire, a show Charm City Kings alludes to with one of Mouse’s t-shirts) where you’re immediately invested in whatever this young man does, and I’m sure directors will take note of his charisma and screen presence.
When Roger Ebert talked about movies as empathy machines, he was talking about movies like Charm City Kings. I’m a white dude who’s afraid of motorcycles, but I was instantly wrapped up in the story of a black cast and their bikes. Yes, there are the typical, universal beats of a coming-of-age story from Mouse finding his own identity and his young love with a new neighbor girl, but they all feel in service of something new. Soto isn’t trying to upend the genre as much as he’s trying to put in the framework of those who are either ignored or depicted solely within the confines of the crime genre. Crime is a part of Charm City Kings, but it’s not the totality of the story. Instead, it represents the dangers, stakes, and even modest appeals, but it’s more about Mouse’s journey. Thanks to some bold storytelling, excellent direction, and Winston’s terrific performance, you’ll be captivated by what Charm City Kings has to offer.
Charm City Kings will be available on HBO Max starting October 8th.