Monday, February 10, 2014

12 O’Clock Boys

There’s much to say about this broad piece on a slice of urban life.  There are elements in this film that speak volumes about just about any issue you want to raise.  There are characters who hold up well to the scrutiny of an omnipresent camera.  And there are scenes that go far to present the challenges that exist for those living on the margins.

But as a film, 12 O’Clock Boys falls far short.  This is a very uneven film, with scenes snipped together, segments that start abruptly, or end abruptly.  Individuals pop up, unannounced, or disappear, without further reference.  Central figures may reappear, but there’s little by way of introduction, or story development.  Other than the spindly central character, Pug, a precocious, undersized, and self-absorbed 13 year old consumed by the lure of becoming one of Baltimore’s infamous 12 O’Clock Boys, there’s no other central voice followed or tracked in the larger community of dirt bike and ATV riders who take over city streets on Sunday group rides.

Former art student Lotfy Nathan aims high, but delivers real low with this story.  He has regular access to Pug, Pug’s incendiary yet frustrated mother, Coco, along with the other members of Pug’s immediate and extended family.  But we come and go from his house, from his life, from his dreams, so many times, that critical elements of the story before us pop up only as vignettes, fading out after a few short seconds.

The death of his older brother from an asthma attack would have benefitted from more than just 30 seconds of open casket video.  The appearance of a former Baltimore City cop as part of an armed security detail needed more setup than the perspective of one street rider.  What happens following the court appearance Coco repeatedly references?  The ability of Pug to obtain bikes goes without mention, despite his frustration at being unable to get a job.  Independent voices from community leaders, school teachers, even other former riders, would have done more to document the role the Boys plays in communities across West and East Baltimore. 

Even the most powerful moment in the film, which is used as a spine, both starting and finishing the story, involves the filmmaker in a role no documentarian would accept as legitimate in the making of a film.  Nathan both drives the van that serves as the vehicle used to transport Pug and a friend to the back yard of a house where he successfully re-acquires his stolen motorcycle.  This isn’t documenting.  It’s contributing.  It’s a line that filmmakers, particularly documentarians, know not to cross.  Even with the hardship, and the challenges we see in Pug’s world, no excuse for this assist passes muster.

Still, 12 O’Clock Boys should be seen.  It’s a powerful lens into a world virtually no person knows exists in this country, yet it’s a world that exists in pockets within many urban communities.  Baltimore is far from alone with its challenges, its divides, and its Pugs.  And it’s a world that we should all see, not only to bear witness, but to better understand.  If only the film rose to the level of the story it attempted to tell. 

Note:  12 O’Clock Boys is short, at 76 minutes, and is playing a limited run at the West End Cinema in NW DC.  It is also available online.