Over a span of three years, relatively unknown first time director Lotfy Nathan trained his camera on a young West Baltimore boy named Pug as he transitioned from a bright-eyed, boundlessly energetic pre-teen to a somewhat world-weary 13-year-old with an increasingly hard edge. Pug, whose undeniable magnetism and knack for guileless insight affords this film its most compelling reason for being, is obsessed with doing wheelies on dirt bikes and ATVs with a passionate intensity that only seems to present itself in the very young. While his fascination is intriguing and lends itself to some downright breathtaking action montages, the film revolves around an emotional center consisting of its subject growing up poor in some of the rougher parts of Baltimore with little parental supervision. What makes 12 O’Clock Boys a nearly perfect film hinges on how everyone involved managed to transcend the easily-exploitable particulars of Pug’s situation to create a work that treats a minor subject with an inspiring amount of respect and autonomy.
Those unfamiliar with contemporary Baltimore culture will be getting their first introduction to the practice of riding off-road vehicles down the city’s streets on any Sunday when the weather’s warm enough to allow for it. A flock of sometimes 50, sometimes 100 dirt bikes, mopeds, and ATVs tears it up throughout the city, doing all sorts of dangerous and sometimes idiotic stunts to entertain scores of onlookers. Part of the thrill of riding this way comes from managing to evade the Baltimore Police Department, ever vigilant in their unending crusade against lower-class men who are letting off steam in one of the city’s least lethal ways (riding off-road vehicles within the city limits is crazy illegal). The pinnacle of accomplishment for these young men is to join the 12 O’Clock Boyz, so named because of their ability to pop a wheelie with their vehicle completely perpendicular to the ground. It’s a sight to behold, and nerve wracking when you see it done at the kind of speeds these fearless young dudes achieve.
Through some fairly standard though nonetheless poignant interviews with the elder statesmen (30-year-olds) of this grand modern tradition, Nathan gives us the low-down on why it is so many young men in Baltimore spend their weekends working on bikes and popping wheelies on the avenues of the coastal city. In an area filled with despair and largely bereft of gainful employment, the dirt bike gangs of Baltimore offer young men a form of release, camaraderie, worth, and sheer, unquantifiable joy. It’s this sense of wonder and accomplishment that draws Pug so strongly to this culture, and it’s a shame that his chosen obsession is so fraught with peril. Throughout the film, we’re treated to a series of Pug’s heartfelt ruminations about growing up in Baltimore, and why it is that riding these bikes is so deadly important to him. Nathan shoots these sequences beautifully, keeping himself out of the exchanges as much as possible, and allowing Pug to manifest as much as possible the full extent of his unique humanity.
Lotfy Nathan’s crafted one of the most immersive and thoughtful documentaries I’ve seen in a while, neither coddling nor moralizing the intricacies of a consummately dangerous upbringing. Confronted with subject matter that practically begs to be imbued with social commentary and the air of a social worker, Nathan decides instead to allow the unique people he came into contact with speak for themselves. By allowing his marginalized subjects the dignity of their mistakes and the gravity of their worldviews and experience, 12 O’Clock Boys ascends to the realm of the very best that documentary filmmaking has to offer. This movie is a revelation. Calling it “The Wire with wheelies!” is a crock of horseshit and misses the point entirely.