‘Charm City Kings’ brings Baltimore dirt bike drama to Sundance

Jen Yamato speaks with the director and cast of “Charm City Kings” at Chase Sapphire on Main.

Baltimore takes the spotlight in Sundance premiere “Charm City Kings,” the tale of a 14-year-old who dreams of joining the Midnight Clique, a local crew of dirt bike riders that his late older brother once belonged to.

During an L.A. Times Live panel this week at the Chase Sapphire Lounge on Main, the filmmakers hoped the characters and story of “Charm City Kings” resonates far and wide. “There’s a Baltimore in every state,” said director Angel Manuel Soto.

Jahi Di’Allo Winston (“Queen & Slim”) anchors the coming-of-age drama as teenage hero Mouse, who pushes his best friends Lamont (Donielle Hansley) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis) to join him one summer as he tries to break into the city’s dirt bike scene.

Determined to grow up a little too fast, Mouse is torn between two mentors: concerned cop Det. Rivers (William Catlett) and ex-con Blax (Meek Mill, in his acting debut).

Kezii Curtis, producer Clarence Hammond, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Will Catlett, director Angel Manuel Soto, Donielle T. Hansley Jr., producer Caleeb Pinkett, screenwriter Sherman Payne, and Wheelie Queen of “Charm City Kings."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“He’s a product of his environment,” said Winston of Mouse. “He’s a victim of his circumstances, he’s a kid who’s very strong willed, and he’s also a kid who is grieving and just trying to cope in this very toxic community, just doing the best with what he’s been given.”

Producers Clarence Hammond and Caleeb Pinkett spent eight years bringing the project to fruition, seeking to tell a story of a young boy “whose circumstances are forcing him to feel like he has to be a man,” said Hammond.

Backed by Sony Pictures Classics and executive produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and James Lassiter, the film will open theatrically in limited release April 10 with an expanded rollout to follow.

“The dramatic core of this movie to me is, Mouse just wants a bike so he can be down,” said Sherman Payne, who wrote the screenplay from a story by Chris Boyd and Kirk Sullivan and Barry Jenkins with themes of masculinity, disenfranchisement and more on his mind.

Inspired by the 2013 documentary “12 O’Clock Boys” by Lotfy Nathan, “Charm City Kings” was filmed on location in Baltimore. Local dirt bike stars Chino and Wheelie Queen were cast in supporting roles and perform some of the film’s dazzling bike stunts, gorgeously lensed by cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi.

Chandler DuPont as Mouse’s summer crush, a smart and perceptive girl named Nicki, while Teyonah Parris as Mouse’s hard-working mother and Catlett as Det. Rivers bring heft to their scenes with Winston’s rebellious Mouse.

Rapper Mill makes his first foray into acting as Blax, who takes Mouse under his wing and tries to steer him away from the path he went down himself. “What Meek brought to this movie is the same thing Ice Cube brought to ‘Boyz in the Hood’ in 1991,” said Pinkett. “Meek being in it gives it an authenticity.”

Jahi Di'Allo Winston stars as Mouse in "Charm City Kings," directed by Angel Manuel Soto.
Jahi Di’Allo Winston stars as Mouse in “Charm City Kings,” directed by Angel Manuel Soto.
(Sundance Film Festival)

The filmmakers hope “Charm City Kings” honors its Baltimore setting while reflecting the humanity of the dirt bike community it depicts.

“For a lot of people it’s the only freedom they have,” said Hammond. “It’s illegal in Baltimore and it’s sad because for so many people who ride, it symbolizes joy, freedom and invincibility. But the very thing that makes you feel invincible can also take away your freedom.”

Director Soto felt parallels between the city and its people and his own hometown in Puerto Rico: “I found in this story a way to tell my struggle [and] my personal experiences as well, with a script that’s very powerful and that does justice to disenfranchised youth and marginalized communities in a way that doesn’t exploit them but celebrates their humanity.”