Pug, the young subject of the documentary "12 O' Clock Boys," wants nothing more than to join a gang of dirt bike riders in Baltimore. Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories.
'12 O'Clock Boys' Director: Lotfy Nathan Genre: Documentary Rating: NR 3 (out of 5) Globes
The title of the documentary “12 O’Clock Boys” refers to a loose gang of dirt bike riders who recklessly speed through the streets of Baltimore. To the law, they’re menaces, albeit ones they’re not allowed to chase, lest they endanger citizens further. To Pug, the doc’s young star, they’re heroes whose ranks he aspires to join. He has more bookish interests; he shows a budding interest in zoology. (A crowdsourcing campaign was launched to raise funds for veterinary school.) But over the film’s three year span, his valorization of them only grows, even as the police find clever ways to escalate their crack down.
Whose side does filmmaker Lotfy Nathan take? He spends most of his time with Pug, so much so that the film often feels like it was made by him. There’s plenty of rough, cellphone-camera footage of the “12 O’Clock Boy” riders, so named because they like to pop wheelies to a 90 degree angle, resembling the hands on a clock. But every so often Nathan presents them in glorious slow-mo, riding mighty to angelic music. “They’re free,” Pug narrates over one such segment. “They get on that bike and they feel powerful.”
But Nathan’s perspective is trickier than that may suggest. Pug sees the 12 O’Clock Boys as a purely positive entity, one that wields defiant autonomy in a dangerous city. But Nathan subtly (and not so subtly) questions this glorification, even as he hews close to Pug’s point-of-view. The messianic shots of them on bikes are severely undercut by revelations that their behavior is indeed dangerous. At one point a member runs into a six year old, nearly killing him. Some more responsible members push towards taking safer measures by driving in underpopulated areas, and it’s pointed out the real problem is size. In the good old days, when they made VHS tapes of their exploits, they numbered only 15. Today they’ve swelled to over 50.
Nathan has stated in interviews that he was uninterested in making an “issue film.” It’s really a conversation starter. It’s the rare film that gets deep into low income inner city life and zeroes in on what motivates those whom society tends to forget. Perhaps it could delve deeper into the scene itself, but by looking at it from a young, aspiring would-be member — who gets tougher and harder to control as the years prowl on — it winds up saying more about what we long for when options are few.