Sundance Film Festival alums that receive a ton of acclaim usually have one of two paths. They either end up as Oscar players, taking that strong buzz and carving out a path in the awards season, or they crumble under the weight of added expectations. For every one of the former, there’s multiple each year of the latter. Charm City Kings, while not firmly stuck as a disappointment, certainly is a step down from what Sundance crowds seemed to suggest. This is not an Academy Award player in the slightest, and frankly, isn’t a particularly satisfying experience. Headed this week to HBO Max, it’s likely to wind up forgotten about before too long, despite some promising aspects to it.
The movie is a drama, mixed with a bit of a coming of age tale. For as long as he can remember, Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) has wanted nothing more than to join a group called The Midnight Clique, a rather infamous collection of dirt bike riders. The Midnight Clique spend their summers ruling the streets of Baltimore on their bikes, which holds great appeal to Mouse, who worships his late brother, Stro. After all, his older brother was a member of the group, so it holds a great importance to him. Mouse has acquired a bike, without telling his mother Teri (Teyonah Parris), who would not approve, for obvious reasons. When the leader of The Midnight Clique, Blax (Meek Mill), takes a shine to Mouse and begins to take 14-year-old boy under his wing, it initially seems like all he could ever want. Of course, before long Mouse finds out that’s it’s more complicated than that, with money and violence coming into conflict with a more honest life. Decisions ensue. Angel Manuel Soto directs a screenplay by Sherman Payne, with story credits going to Christopher M. Boyd and Kirk Sullivan, as well as Barry Jenkins. Katelin Arizmendi provides the cinematography, while Alex Somers composes the score. Supporting players include William Catlett, Kezii Curtis, and more.
Despite a strong sense of place, having been shot in Baltimore, too much of the narrative feels anonymous and bland. We’ve seen this story before, so despite Barry Jenkins being involved in the writing, it never has the vibrancy that the filmmakers are clearly shooting for. Director Angel Manuel Soto does his best to keep things lively, but it never hits like it should. Everyone involved, from the cast to the behind the scenes crew, clearly are trying to tell a grand story with the film. Unfortunately, it comes off like something we’ve seen too many times before.
Charm City Kings probably had a lot more appeal back at the Sundance Film Festival, when the flick definitely stood out more. Here, heading into its HBO Max release, it doesn’t have that benefit. One does wonder what someone like Jenkins could have done with the narrative if given total freedom over it, but the end result does not have his finely tuned touch. Beyond that, at over two hours long, it drags considerably, never grabbing you and engaging you in its story.
Hitting HBO Max tomorrow, Charm City Kings has its highs, but also too many lows to be fully worthy of a recommendation. Those who are curious about anything Barry Jenkins is involved with, as well as those who heard the raves at Sundance, should definitely give it a shot. Just keep your expectations in check. There’s a really strong movie in here, I know it. It just never managed to find its way out…
Charm City Kings will be on HBO Max this Thursday.
(Photos courtesy of HBO Max)