Film marketing is a quagmire. On one hand are trailers that tell too much of a movie, too often revealing its beginning, middle, and end to the savvy viewer; on the other, misleading movie marketing feels like a scam, a bait-and-switch that most often results in the high-concept trailer leading to a disappointing experience. When I saw the trailer for Charm City Kings — the new film with big names behind it like Barry Jenkins, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett-Smith — I predicted the former. My estimation was a contained world where street biking reined supreme, the suspension of belief begging you to believe that everyone values this world, knows its players, and lives by its rules. The Wire meets Fast and Furious, to ignorable effect. And for a while, as I screened the film that premiered at both Sundance and South by Southwest, I was right. And then, boy, was I wrong.
What begins as a cliché small-world story of a boy obsessed with street biking turns into an unexpectedly touching film that leverages the talent of its young cast — anchored by Jahi Di’Allo Winston — to examine the paradox between the hardness and tenderness of Black boyhood. As the movie grows from its small world of street bike racing to the broader Baltimore, so too does Charm City Kings evolve from being a coming-of-age comedy-drama with low stakes, to an exploration of the tightrope walk between the streets and a better life, and the question of second chances that lie at the heart of its theme. It’s season 4 of The Wire meets 2019’s Good Boys, and to wonderful effect.
Our coming-of-age subjects are Mouse and his two friends, Lamont and Sweartagod, as 7th graders in Baltimore. Each are invested in proving themselves as more mature than they are: Lamont through his hardness, Sweartagod by his jokes about the imagined sexual exploits of a 12-year old, and Mouse, most notably, by living up to his brother’s name as a rider. The movie balances its often lighthearted tone in its first act with a swelling seriousness that bubbles over in its third, a shift so gradual you are lulled into it like a frog in a slowly heating pot. By the time life begins to get real for the boys, you feel how precarious their lives have always been as they live at the cusp of boyhood innocence and invulnerability, and manhood consequences and danger.
The messenger of the latter is none other than Meek Mill, who within the film is jokingly referred to as Mister Miyagi as he tries to save the youth — one of several self-aware pokes that undercut the eye-roll factor that come with movies about life on the streets. Another nod is to Baltimore’s most famous son and obvious comparison point, The Wire, as Mouse wears a t-shirt that says “Avon, Stringer, WeeBey, and D’Angelo.” Of course, your eyes will still roll at any number of early scenes as you acclimate to seeing Meek Mill as an actor. Among the first speaking lines of his character, Blax, he seems to be quoting the rapper’s lyrics as spoken hood scriptures; later someone says “scared money don’t make none” and you cringe at the thought someone invariably adding “if I ever go broke, I’ma take your money” until the editors simply cut it out. I found myself acclimated quickly though, due to the performances around him: Jahi Di’Allo Winston could make any scene great, and compared to the other hustlers Meek Mill’s lesser-spoken strength lands exceptionally well.
In a film that examines Black boyhood and masculinity, it could be expected — and all the more disappointing — one of its biggest weaknesses is its girl lead Nicki, played by Chandler DuPont, who is reduced to a love interest in sole service of Mouse’s personal journey. With few goals of her own and a forgiving heart, she is written as little more than a trophy, a reward for the goodhearted boy to earn if only he allows his good heart to win. Still, DuPont’s charm is felt in each of her scenes. And while Jahi Di’Allo Winston’s emotional scenes are the most powerful, they are made their best by his mother, played by Teyonah Parris as the pound-for-pound champion of the screen.
Overall, Charm City Kings is a stellar balance of comedy and drama, low stakes and high, small world and large. And while its last 20 minutes or so may stumble against your suspension of disbelief, at its best the film is a mirror to the crossroads that boys find in their lives and the types of people around them who help them decide whether to go left or right. The film asks whether you believe Black boys are often given second chances, and regardless your answer, Charm City Kings presents a charming yet raw setting to help question the context of their decisions. It’s worth the entry price, and the space in your thoughts afterward.
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