The documentary “12 O’Clock Boys,” about a group of renegade dirt-bike riders known for driving in aggressive, noisy packs through the streets of Baltimore, could have gone wrong in so many ways. As an investigation of a largely ignored urban subculture, it could have romanticized its subjects, portraying them as outlaws and folk heroes. Or, in the tradition of “The Wild One” and the juvenile delinquent classics of the 1950s, it could have gone the way of moral panic, tut-tutting over the poverty, parental neglect and frayed social safety net that have produced a generation of kids willing to take reckless, potentially fatal risks with their lives and others’.
To its everlasting credit, “12 O’Clock Boys” does neither of these things — or, rather, it does both, in the most subtle and insightful way possible. Directed with surpassing sensitivity and visual lyricism by first-time filmmaker Lotfy Nathan, this mesmerizing, often wrenching portrait of Baltimore’s meanest precincts packs an enormous amount of information into its tight 72-minute running time. Nathan follows a boy named Pug, who as the film opens is just turning 13 and longs to join the titular dirt-bike group, named the 12 O’Clock Boys because when they pop wheelies, their bikes point straight up, like the hands of a clock.
Nathan follows Pug for three years, during which time he goes from angel-faced child to angry, foul-mouthed young adult, surrounded by a world of hair-trigger violence and explosive tempers. (It’s a given that the constant police presence in Pug’s West Baltimore neighborhood isn’t a source of reassurance but of menace.) The filmmaker also spends time with Pug’s mother, Coco, a former exotic dancer who struggles to bring up five children on her own.
Tragedy befalls Pug and Coco when a family member succumbs, not to gun violence or a biking accident, but asthma — a silent killer among poor communities that doesn’t get nearly the same amount of ink or attention. That’s just the kind of layered understanding that Nathan brings to the entire production of “12 O’Clock Boys,” which was filmed digitally but possesses the magic-hour glow of Terrence Malick at his most poetic. Nathan allows viewers to have misgivings about Pug and his mentors, even while they admire the control and balance they bring to their improvised sport and understand the exhilaration, freedom and dignity they get from it.
“This is our release,” one rider explains and, watching as a group of young men careers through a greensward in a public park, it’s impossible to begrudge them even if, later, they will provoke police in a frighteningly chaotic street scene. With “12 O’Clock Boys,” Nathan has created a fascinating diptych, keeping his eye as firmly on Pug’s wrenching sense of fatalism as on his youthful abandon. As for judging, he wisely leaves that up to us.
Unrated. Contains pervasive profanity. 72 minutes. Available via Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play, Xbox, Vudu, Vimeo and on-demand cable.