"This is our tradition, our culture, our release."
So says one of the 12 O'Clock Boys — a large group of dirt bike and ATV enthusiasts who, depending on your perspective, either grace or terrorize the streets of Baltimore each Sunday with acrobatic feats on their motorbikes. They weave through the city traffic, popping extended wheelies, the line of their bikes almost at vertical, approximating the hands of a clock at noon.
Lotfy Nathan's documentary seems, at first, to be something we've seen before. Over the course of three years, he follows Pug, a sweet, small-for-his-age 13-year-old who aspires to two things: to parlay his love of animals into a veterinary career, and to one day ride with the big boys. For now, he's practicing doughnuts and wheelies on an adorable miniature ATV.
This is the story of a struggle against inner-city adversity, one talented child finding his escape, avoiding gang life through a potentially more positive, less violent community tradition, right?
But Nathan's film defies easy categorization; he's interested in neither telling that fairy tale nor painting issues in broad strokes. He leaves the latter to the characters in the film, characters who excel at presenting the rigid, dueling perspectives on two sides of a wide divide; Nathan is more keen on challenging the viewer to jump into the gray area between.
The case against the riders is presented mainly via news footage, with local reporters and public figures discussing the public-safety threat supposedly presented by the 12 O'Clock Boys. One talk-radio host, in opening the film, brings in a particularly incendiary and racially charged perspective to show the worst of this side of the argument.
Nathan spends most of his first-person camera time with Pug and the riders, and it's from that side that he gets the "tradition, culture and release" side of the story. From them, too, comes theargument that riding keeps these young men out of gangs; when you ride a bike, it "makes you neutral" in the eyes of Baltimore's gang factions, explains one rider.
The appeal of stunt riding is heightened by Nathan's visual flair for capturing the 12 O'Clock Boys in their element. Shooting them with a high-speed camera, the director slows down the stunts and the triumphant facial expressions into gorgeous super-slow-motion interludes, while Joe Williams' score imbues the sequences with a balletic grace. These are real riders, but they're rendered here as one imagines they might appear in Pug's idealized dreams.
But neither of those two perspectives tell the whole story. Police, forbidden to engage in high speed chases, can mitigate the real public safety concerns only to a certain degree — and the dangers to the community are real.
Meanwhile, the question of how effective riding can be at turning lives around is one more individual than universal; it may have worked for Steve, a former 12 O'Clock Boy who now sticks to the sidelines and helps kids find safe environments in which to learn to ride. But it's still an open question as to how things are going to work out for others.
Concentrating on Pug's development from age 13 to age 16 allows the documentary to show a huge amount of transformation over its relatively brief running time. And not all of it is positive. Early on we see a child who's too often wandering unsupervised, wistfully watching a gathering of riders he's still too young to join, his desperate desire for acceptance all over his face. Over the three years, though, we see that face and demeanor harden, as Pug adopts the rituals of a boy acting like a man. He talks remorselessly about beating up a kid at school. He barks sullenly at the filmmaker he used to perform enthusiastically for. He kicks at his dog.
And is it any wonder? The one naively trusting act Pug engages in during the film's latter portion results in his losing his most prized possession. Nathan's film gets at a difficult and sobering fact: Pug's world is one that often rewards only hard detachment and distrust. That's a cultural tradition perhaps even more entrenched than the dirt bikes, and one from which it's more difficult to find release. (Recommended)