HBO Max is still in its infancy, though the streaming service already seems to be finding its groove. Alongside a bevy of adored classics, the service has started a promising library of original content, including accomplished films like Unpregenant and Class Action Park. The latest film to join that lineage is Charm City Kings, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (it was originally purchased by Sony Pictures Classic, but was sold once COVID began). Painting a deeply authentic portrait of Baltimore’s impoverished community, director Angel Manuel Soto crafts one of the year’s most assured features.
Charm City Kings follows Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a precocious teen growing up in the streets of Baltimore. Still mourning his older brother’s death, Mouse spends his days idealizing the Midnight Clique, a biker gang that imbues life into their community with lively stuntwork. When Mouse gets an opportunity to work under a former member Blax (acclaimed rapper Meek Mill), he’s introduced into the allures and dangers of the crew’s lifestyle.
Several films have confronted the circular reality of the gangster lifestyle, often initiating members when they are at their lowest financially before being trapped after incurring run-ins for the law (As Blax aptly puts, “you don’t get second chances in this life”). Instead of merely conveying this reality, Charm City Kings observes these conditions with an empathetic eye, imbuing a sense of confliction and self-reflection into the central subjects. Sherman Payne’s screenplay enhances this focus with a character-driven approach, centralizing his effort on lived-in personas over-familiar plot dynamics.
It certainly helps that Charm City Kings bolsters two accomplished acting showcases. This film rides or dies with Jahi Di’Allo Winston’s performance of Mouse, with the 16-year old being up for the tall task. Exhibiting unheralded poise and nuance for his age, Winston allows audiences to feel the character’s every joy and pain through his dedicated conviction. Meek Mill’s acting debut is perhaps the biggest standout, taping into a potent sensitivity that harkens to the Mahershala Ali’s breakout performance in Moonlight. His arc represents the tight-wire act between living a prosperous life and succumbing to the dangers of the character’s environment, with Mill unearthing a potent paternal strength as Mouse’s supportive role model. Young stars Kezii Curtis and Donielle Hansley Jr. also leave a strong impression as Mouse’s personable friends.
In lesser hands, Charm City Kings could’ve landed as a run-of-the-mill detour into a community’s lingering pains, but director Angel Manuel Soto thankfully invigorates his film with finite precision. His technical ability propels the narrative forward with a pressing sense of agency, incorporating dynamic framing to convey the character’s unease and personal demons. Soto also has a blast portraying the Midnight Clique’s stylish daredevil act, including a tense bike chase that ranks among the year’s most exciting sequences (the film was originally based on a documentary about Baltimore’s bike gangs).
Charm City Kings unearths its timeless ruminations with precision and verve, throttling forward a narrative that is equally impactful and enthralling. I can’t wait to see where Soto, Payne, Winston, and Mill go with their already-prosperous careers.
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