Sundance 2020: Charm City Kings

If, as a young person, you have deeply longed to belong to a group that represents something larger than your circumstance, then you just might identify with Mouse, the protagonist of Charm City Kings.

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For Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), there is nothing cooler than the Midnight Clique, a group of bikers in his neighbourhood. His elder brother was a member, which might explain his admiration. But his brother also died in circumstances that seem connected to his membership, which explains Mouse’s mother’s antipathy for her surviving son’s aspirations.

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There is a small girl in the mix, Mouse’s sister but she mainly serves as his comic foil, demanding payment for his unsanctioned excursions from the house. Outside of his home, where the bikers ride, a police officer tracks Mouse frequently, insisting on helping the kid figure out his way in the world — and out of the world he’s so psychologically invested in. But, as everyone knows, teenagehood and reason aren’t very compatible.

From a script co-written by Barry Jenkins, Angel Manuel Soto produces a film that is quite charming, relying as it does on Winston’s open-book face and the banter between him and his two best friends. The film hands rapper Meek Mill a role as a gangster trying to guide Mouse away from the path that led him to jail. There are indications of the violent life that his character has lived but because none of this is shown, the character doesn’t seem much different from Meek, who also went to jail and for reasons related to biking. This detail has to have been intentional considering how viral Meek’s imprisonment was.

What isn’t as easily accounted for is the film’s pivotal moment. Viewers might be charmed by the film’s messaging and its usefulness in these times — but for anyone not heavily seduced by the film’s narrative, a sense of being cheated out of a darker, perhaps perfect film, might linger. It is a bit of a mercy that the film doesn’t end on that note. Instead it proceeds as thought it really wants to end the first word of its title. I have some misgivings concerning that resolution but I admit that the charm returns before the film ends.

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Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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