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Sundance 2020: Charm City Kings Review

I’m a sucker for a great coming-of-age story. But really, who isn’t? Fourteen is a special time in life when you find yourself caught between being a kid and finally growing up. Your emotions (and hormones) are ramped up to 1000%, and each moment of elation and every heartbreak feels like the most important thing in the world.

Fourteen is also the age where your decisions start impacting the rest of your life. The music you listen to, the friends you choose, and the boundaries you’re willing to test all help sculpt you into the upstanding (or degenerate) adult you’re destined to be.

Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) is a 14-year-old boy who finds himself at that very crossroads. He’s a sweet kid with a big heart and has his sights set on becoming a veterinarian. Mouse spends his summer days goofing around Baltimore with his two best friends, Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.), and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis).

If there is one thing Mouse loves more than animals it’s Baltimore’s infamous dirt-bike scene. His older brother was one of the top riders in the Midnight Clique, a gang of dirt-bikers who are celebrities in their rough neighbourhood. Mouse follows in his brother’s footsteps after the Midnight Clique’s leader, the recently paroled Blax (Meek Mill), takes the youngster under his wing.

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Mouse’s community outreach mentor, Detective Rivers (William Catlett), sees trouble in the kid’s future – the Midnight Clique are drug dealers and stone-cold killers. But Mouse refuses to take Detective Rivers’ advice. Before long, Mouse and his friends get sucked into the street-life, and his dreams of becoming a vet start to fade.

Director Angel Manuel Soto’s film Charm City Kings taps into the joy and the sadness we experience as we reach childhood’s twilight. The movie is at it’s best when it’s Mouse and his friends cracking jokes and chasing girls. The children have a natural chemistry, and I would watch a film about these three without the film’s crime element. But that’s not the tale Soto wants to tell.

Charm City Kings is the story of a boy caught between two worlds. The film depicts this by offering Mouse two father figures who exist on opposite sides of the law. We all struggle to figure out who we are during our teens. But this is especially true for kids like Mouse, who grow up in a culture with a narrow definition of what it means to be a young black man.

The casting team knocked it out of the park finding the right actors for their film. Mouse, Lamont, and Sweartagawd’s friendship is the beating heart of the film, and you believe these three kids, with their unique personalities, would actually be friends.

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Screenwriter Sherman Payne has an ear for dialogue. Everything sounds authentic, right down to the cast’s west Baltimore drawl. Charm City Kings is a serious movie, but it features plenty of laughs too. Mouse and his buddies are first-class shit-talkers. When the kids snap on each other, their insults sting, but they’re not malicious. No matter what the three kids say to each other, you always feel the love between them.

With all respect to Lamont and Sweartagawd, this film belongs to Mouse. Charm City Kings couldn’t find a better lead than Winston. He’s gangly, nerdy, and at that awkward age for young boys when their voices squeak and crack. Mouse couldn’t be cool if his life depended on it, so when he does try and show some swag he looks even dorkier.

The screenplay takes some shortcuts by having Mouse dream about being a vet. Characters being kind to animals is a screenwriter cheat-code – if Mouse loves animals, he can’t be all bad, right? Even if Charm City Kings didn’t use this narrative crutch, we wouldn’t lose faith in Mouse on his wayward journey. As he gets pulled into a life of crime, he remains that kid with a soft heart. Winston never gives off that thug vibe, and Mouse wears his toughness like an ill-fitting suit.

Soto and his cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi make you feel like you’re a part of the action. Arizmendi shoots many of the scenes with long, drawn-out takes, which helps immerse viewers in a scene. And much like a 14-year-old buzzing off too much Mountain Dew, the camera rarely sits still. It’s always moving, swooping and swirling around the cast and soaking up all the details.

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When the action kicks off, Soto and Arizmendi take the visuals to another level. There is a police chase early on, which is as visceral and thrilling as anything you will see at the movies this year. Soto wants the audience to feel like they’re in the thick of the chase, whipping through the streets of Baltimore as the Midnight Clique evade the cops. All the screeching tires and near-collisions almost stopped my heart. The outstanding sequence makes a damn fine case for Soto to direct a Fast and the Furious spin-off.

Charm City Kings’ score is full of bangers. And surprise, surprise, it features a heavy dose of Meek Mill’s music. If I wasn’t watching the movie in a theatre, I would have been SoundHounding each track or finding somewhere to stream the soundtrack.

I also enjoyed the little touches like having the older, wiser Detective Rivers cruise around listening to rap from the ‘90s. Watching Rivers and Mouse banter about their differing taste in music is charming. Even though their squabbling seems light-hearted, it speaks volumes about their fractured relationship. Rivers comes across as too old and out of touch while Mouse listens to the same modern rap as those in Blax’s circle.

I can already hear the complaints from people claiming Charm City Kings glamourizes a criminal lifestyle. Part of that is because this movie looks so cool. To paraphrase Francois Truffaut, “It’s pretty much impossible to really make an anti-war film.” No matter how anti-war a war movie is, it still features guys like Denzel Washington and George Clooney looking dashing AF. The first time Blax shows up and pulls off his mask, the camera captures him with the loving gaze reserved for old-Hollywood stars like Cary Grant.

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I’m not going to get into how these complaints happen more frequently when violent black movies hit the local multiplex. Assuming you’re not judging the film by the trailer, Charm City Kings is an obvious cautionary tale. Soto and Payne aren’t subtle about their movie’s moral centre. If you have any doubt, just ask yourself whether characters pay a toll for their poor decisions.

If you walk out of the theatre feeling like Charm City Kings ripped your heart out of your chest, then the film did its job. If you walk away thinking, “This movie needs more shootouts,” you missed the point.

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