Charm City Kings
Charm City Kings (streaming on HBO Max) is a pretty routine coming of age drama. It is about a kid stuck between the good path (his family, working at the animal hospital, the police officer trying to be his mentor) and the bad path (his friends, a gang, the ex-con mechanic trying to be his mentor). It is very predictable, even going out of its way to include some derivative plot elements that come off as forced, and its protagonist’s arc is not always the most organic. However, when it steps away from its plot, focusing instead on the issues the characters face, and on its dynamic lead performance, it is a captivating watch.
Thirteen-year-old Mouse lives with his mom and younger sister, who he is tasked with taking care of when their mom is at work. He would rather sneak off with his friends to watch the gang of dirt bike riders. When local legend Blax offers to let him ride the bikes in exchange for helping to fix them up, Mouse shoves aside his responsibilities (and his dream of becoming a veterinarian) and starts drifting closer toward the world that cost his brother his life.
You can see where things are going from a long way away. Mouse is a smart kid whose mother is trying to steer him in the direction of a successful career, as far as possible from the life that already took one son from her. She encourages the attention of a detective who wants to take Mouse under his wing. Of course, Mouse is more likely to listen to his friends, who are fascinated by the bikers, whose skills look like freedom to the kids. All of this stuff is done decently, if unspectacularly. I wish the filmmakers had found a more natural way to get Mouse where they wanted him to go; the final act is contrived and rushed. Yet there are times when Charm City Kings becomes greater than its story. That is thanks to the acting and some unexpected nuance given to the character of Blax.
While Mouse may be an unoriginal creation, he is given authenticity by the performance of Jahi Di’Allo Winston. He is so convincingly “there” at all times, from the way his eyes light up when he looks at the bikes to the way he flirts with the new girl in town. Winston is so remarkably genuine that there were moments where I could easily ignore the fact that I have seen this journey before and get lost in watching this kid grow up. The biggest compliment I can give to an actor is that I forget I am seeing a performance. That is what happened for most of this movie. He was Mouse. He nailed that balance between childhood enthusiasm and the sudden desire to be a man way too soon. Charm City Kings is at its best when it stays in that space. Or when it explores the relationship between Mouse and Blax.
Blax is played by rapper Meek Mill, in his first acting role. The character fits into the long storytelling tradition of older men who advise a teenage boy through tough decisions (Mouse’s friends even reference The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi when discussing him, so the screenplay is certainly aware of its clichés). In this case, though, he’s deeper than you normally find in this genre. He is recently released from jail and knew Mouse’s brother, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is the devil on this kid’s shoulder. It’s possible he regrets having used naïve kids for his criminal activity in the past. If Mouse’s arc is obvious from the start, Blax’s is more complex and subtle. It feels like it is happening before our eyes, as opposed to feeling like it has been written in the stars. Mill is also impressive here, using movement and body language to tell us what Blax is thinking. Despite sometimes having to deliver clunky dialogue, he never overacts a line. This proves Meek Mill could have an acting career if he wants one.
Charm City Kings doesn’t have a strong message and you probably won’t see much you don’t expect. Its plotting is predictable and occasionally unconvincing. Yet it overcomes those shortcomings due to the acting and characterizations of the two main roles. Winston, especially, is great. When the movie gets out of his way and lets him be Mouse, it almost rises up to his level. Not quite, but enough to make this definitely worth checking out.
3½ out of 5
Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Mouse
Meek Mill as Blax
Donielle T. Hansley Jr. as Lamont
Kezii Curtis as Sweartagawd
Chandler DuPont as Nicki
William Catlett as Detective Rivers
Pacino Braxton as Jamal
Directed by Angel Manuel Soto
Screenplay by Sherman Payne