Film Review: 12 O'Clock Boys

Vibrantly filmed documentary about a young boy trying to fit in with notorious Baltimore dirt-bike riders fairly throbs with pent-up passions, but runs out of story fast.

A city of many traditions, Baltimore never disappoints when it comes to inventing something new to take away the sting of urban depression. In Lofty Nathan’s street rhapsody of a debut film about a boy’s coming of age amidst a city’s continuing decline, the so-called 12 O’Clock Boys provide a swarming, colorful backdrop for the systemic dysfunction highlighted by Nathan. The 12 O’Clock Boys are a pack of dirt-bike and four-wheeler riders who became YouTube-famous in recent years for swarming through the city by the dozens on Sundays doing tricks and popping extreme wheelies while police choppers hover anxiously overhead.

Their name comes from a signature move where a rider pops a wheelie so high that the front wheel goes straight up like an hour hand on a clock pointing to twelve. It supplies phenomenal footage for local news shows, confuses many of the drivers and pedestrians they’re swarming past, thrills some bystanders, and infuriates others. “What are we doing about these little scumbags?” shouts a talk-radio caller. Over the three years that Nathan follows his young protagonist, Pug, his enraptured camera witnesses one all-consuming emotion: Pug wants nothing more than to be a 12 O’Clock Boy. The film feeds off his enthusiasm.

From spring 2010 through late 2013, Nathan tracks Pug as he grows from a bike-obsessed, bright-eyed kid with an easy smile and eager manner to still eager and bright-eyed but smolderingly angry pre-adolescent with something to prove. His chaotic home life is a recipe for dysfunction: four siblings and no father, a mother too overwhelmed by her circumstances to provide stability, and the traumatic and sudden death of an older brother who was the closest thing to an authority figure that Pug had.

Out on the street, though, with the 12 O’Clock Boys, Pug is in his element. Initially a self-contained loner, he practices tricks on his four-wheeler with the dutiful nature of an apprentice, rushing out into the street to watch the Boys whip past as though they were celebrities. As he ages, Pug becomes more assertive, getting into fights at school and battling for a slot with the Boys. In his eyes, this is literally all he has to live for. Given that he’s surrounded by (mostly unseen) gang activity and an urban landscape seemingly devoid of functioning businesses or civic institutions, it’s easy to comprehend that conclusion.

The 12 O’Clock Boys are the colorful fantasy counterpart to Pug’s home life. Unlike the corner boys, however, they don’t promise easy money or flash, just a fun escape by riding like rebels. This viewpoint is advanced by one of the film’s more fascinating characters, Steve. One of the few neighborhood guys to have found a solid job and better place to live, Steve returns to the hood on Sundays as a kind of volunteer support staff, radioing the Boys about police locations and carrying their bikes in his truck. He steadfastly sees the rides as a positive release, something better for the kids to do than dealing, no matter how chaotic it is.

Nathan speckles the film with luxuriously slow-motion shots of the riders, beaming and beatific. They give themselves names like Bam and Shawn Sean, telling the stories of how the Boys’ “founders” like Wheelie Wayne became famous passing around duped videos of themselves doing tricks, just like skateboarders used to do. Now, with YouTube, they achieve a kind of international notoriety. Meanwhile, the police are forced to follow from a distance because of the no-chase orders put in place to keep crashes to a minimum.

Nathan is so deeply embedded with the Boys that the film has little perspective on them. There are no annoyed bystanders, just happy-go-lucky kids. Nathan lets viewers fill in most of that backdrop for themselves. This leaves the film with a too-tight focus that veers towards repetition. Although many will force comparisons to “The Wire,” while Nathan shares “Wire” creator David Simon’s embedded empathy—there’s a welcome lack of finger-wagging here—he doesn’t have a similarly journalistic hunger for context that could have given the film some needed heft.

Given the empty surroundings and what Pug sees on a daily basis, his insistence that “you could die any minute” has its logic. He is understandably impatient to rush with all his fury towards something beautiful, even if it’s ultimately at best a hobby, not a life.