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Jahi Di'Allo Winston stars as Mouse in Charm City Kings.

William Gray/HBO Max / Crave

  • Charm City Kings
  • Directed by Angel Manuel Soto
  • Written by Sherman Payne
  • Starring Meek Mill, Jahi Di’Allo Winston and Teyonah Parris
  • Classification R; 125 minutes

rating

2.5 out of 4 stars

Puerto Rican director Angel Manuel Soto’s second feature, Charm City Kings, is a film that makes work of hedging its bets. An adaptation of Lotfy Nathan’s 2013 documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, Soto’s movie similarly focuses on the growing pains of a 14-year-old boy, Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who aspires to join Baltimore’s prolific dirt-bike gang, the Midnight Clique.

Kings is a study in paired differences. The screenplay is written by Shameless and Scream television alum Sherman Payne, bolstered with story credits from a team that includes celebrated director Barry Jenkins. It tempers prototypical street-drama action with narrative and formal flourishes more common to indie filmmaking. And it pairs newcomer Di’Allo Winston (The Dead Don’t Die, Queen & Slim) with rapper Meek Mill in his first onscreen role.

Di’Allo Winston’s Mouse is charismatic and deep, moving with ease between the everyday insecurities (and joys) of boyhood and the complexities and weight of a world that feels at once prescriptive and vast. In both his character’s highs and lows, he finds rightful intensity and tenderness and is often striking, if not charming, to watch.

Story continues below advertisement

In his first acting role, rapper Meek Mill, left, is sadly flat.

William Gray/HBO Max / Crave

This stands in contrast to Mill’s Blax, a Midnight City member and neighbourhood hero in the eyes of young Mouse. Mill’s real-life history of activism regarding trivial parole violations and a judicial system biased against Black men no doubt imbues his role here, but it’s simply not enough to make up for the fact that he is completely flat onscreen. Despite the fact that we as an audience are more than moved to identify with his character and motivations, Mill gives us little to work with in the way of presence. Given the small amount of screen time Mill is offered, it would not be surprising to find that Soto was aware of this fact.

The connective thread of Charm City Kings is undoubtedly its push and pull between disparate elements. Soto ties utterly commonplace action scenarios with contemplative moments more in line with, or at least aspiring to, the work of Jenkins. It comes across as a film that doesn’t want to lose any aspect of its spirit or even inspirations, and in doing so it lives – much like young Mouse – as a study of choices made.

Narratively lying somewhere between coming-of-age indie darlings (think David Gordon Green’s George Washington) and comparatively lighter street-racing fare (from the first three Fast and the Furious films to, honestly, anything of that same ilk), Charm City Kings seems unsure how to balance its intentions outside of forming a narrative and style that is more patchwork than harmonized.

Overall, it’s a film that is not great but just fine. Its biggest limitations are the ones it places on its own characters. The question of who is worthy of mentorship, of guardianship, of protection, of life, is one that echoes through Kings, yet the story doesn’t explore these queries beyond the most obvious paths. The instincts the film follows are interesting at times (its commentary on the white-supremacist violence of policing is there, however middling), but overall, its movements add up to a story that rehashes tired characterizations of who is and isn’t worth saving, who does or doesn’t have potential. What I wish for Soto’s film is that it imagined more for all of the lives it depicts, rather than just a select few.

William Gray/HBO Max / Crave

Charm City Kings is available to stream on Crave starting Oct. 8

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