Review by Sean Boelman
With a story by Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins, Angel Manuel Soto’s new film Charm City Kings is a charming new coming-of-age movie set in the world of underground BMX gangs. Thanks to immersive world-building and some fascinating commentary on gang culture, this is a shockingly emotional watch.
The film follows a young boy who makes a desperate bid to join a gang of dirt bikers in Baltimore, leading him to make some questionable decisions that could land him in trouble. While the movie does lean a bit too heavily on genre conventions at times, the insight that Sheman Payne’s screenplay on topical issues makes it work quite well.
Payne’s main commentary in the film addresses the practice of indoctrinating youth into gangs. Admittedly, there are a few forced plot points in the movie that are about to cross the edge of feeling manipulative but still have an emotional impact as a result of strong direction by Soto and good performances.
The character development is one of the film’s strengths. A majority of the best parts of the movie explore the relationships that the protagonist has with his sidekicks and mentor. Yes, there’s a romantic subplot that is a bit underdeveloped, but for the most part, the characters in the film are likable and memorable.
Young actor Jahi Di’Allo Winston (Queen & Slim) does an excellent job in his first leading role, bringing a lot of passion and humanity to the character. He’s definitely very charming and has an excellent screen presence. Also notable is rapper Meek Mill’s feature debut, which is surprisingly emotional.
On a technical level, Soto brings a lot of visual style to the movie. As expected, there are a lot of excellent sequences featuring BMX tricks. The cinematography by Katelin Arizmendi, particularly during these scenes, is done in a way that is exciting and immersive as to draw the viewer into the characters’ world.
The main weakness that the film has is that its pacing isn’t completely even. The first act does an excellent job of developing the characters, the second act goes a bit more conventional, and then the third act is rushed, shoving in a bunch of conflict in an attempt to tie up the remainder of the arcs.
Charm City Kings is admittedly a bit rough around the edges, but for the most part, it’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking watch. Director Angel Manuel Soto is undeniably a very talented filmmaker, and his vision keeps the movie afloat.
Charm City Kings streams on October 8 on HBO Max.