Title: 12 O’Clock Boys
Director: Lotfy Nathan
“This is what the ghetto produces,” says one of the satellite bit-players of the arresting, compact new documentary “12 O’Clock Boys,” director Lotfy Nathan’s look at a Baltimore subculture of young African-American dirt-bike enthusiasts who view their hobby as a ride-or-die proposition — a dangerous way to act out proxy battles with authority. He’s speaking of the film’s pugnacious adolescent protagonist, Pug, but also all the churning despair, angst and pessimism wrapped up inside him. Youthful anguish and risky acting out are relative constants across geography and time, of course, but this film, which skirts the line between urban dirge and sociocultural curiosity, paints a compelling portrait of a kid slipping through the cracks.
The film takes its name from the eponymous band of mostly teens and twentysomethings who rowdily parade through Baltimore’s city streets each Sunday, on four-wheel ATVs and tricked-out mopeds. They, in turn, are named for the daring wheelies their riders pop, in which they rear back and stretch their bikes’ front wheels toward the sky. “12 O’Clock Boys” unfolds over the course of more than three years, from 2010 to 2013, chronicling the charismatic Pug as he transitions into teenagedom and endeavors to gain acceptance into the group. (It’s never clear how formal admission works, but Pug’s age and small stature seem to work against him.)
Pug’s home life is tumultuous; his single mother, Coco, is a former exotic dancer with four children. Pug loves animals, and has dreams of being a veterinarian. His main obsession, however, is dirt bikes. Like many his age, he’s captivated by the carousing misadventures of the 12 O’Clock Boys, who rack up thousands of YouTube views from all over the globe and taunt police — who have a no-chase policy, in order to preserve pedestrian safety in the wake of a series of accidents — with their antics. In a city with many worse temptations and vices, “12 O’Clock Boys” gives voice to those who argue that this outlaw brand of weekend and summer “release” is a way to remain neutral in gang-controlled areas (they respect their skill), while also not shying away from the fact that a big part of the dirt-bike culture seems like an only slightly less dangerous pressure release valve for perpetual tension with law enforcement. With the serial antagonization of police officers, things are not going to end well.
Some of Nathan’s slow-motion footage lionizes the 12 O’Clock Boys, playing out like a music video. But he also makes some extraordinarily interesting and seemingly counterintuitive editing choices that pay off in big ways. When Pug’s older brother Tibba dies from an asthma attack, one would expect the movie to grind to a halt as the family copes with the grief. Young and unexpected death, though, is a frequent visitor in poorer areas of Baltimore, and so the movie quickly pushes past this, adhering to its main focus (Pug’s obsession with dirt bikes) and equally apportioned chronological tack. Years later, then, when Pug is stopped by cops who ask him about his older brother, he points to the back of his airbrushed T-shirt honoring Tibba, and presses one of the officers as to how he knows Tibba. It’s a heartbreaking moment that wouldn’t have the same impact had Nathan delved further into Tibba’s story; in painting this death as an adjunct to all the other drama surrounding Pug, his film speaks quiet volumes about the manner in which what are in retrospect even causal tragedies are often white noise in our more of-the-moment pursuits.
The ending of “12 O’Clock Boys,” which blurs the lines between fantasy recreation and indulgence, is thought-provoking, but also feels a bit like a ripcord pulled too soon. Still, Nathan’s film is a gripping portrait of youthful passion as well as opportunity’s doors slowly closing. One hopes Pug can slip through before some of the better options swing shut.
NOTE: In addition to its theatrical engagements via Oscilloscope Laboratories, “12 O’Clock Boys” is also available across VOD platforms.
Written by: Brent Simon