“They call them the 12 O’clock Boys because they drop the bike straight back,” explains the 13-year-old narrator and ostensible protagonist of director Lotfy Nathan’s documentary, 12 O’Clock Boys. “If you get to 12 o’clock,” he says, “You’re the shit.”
That 13-year-old, a precocious yet impressionable inner-city kid from Baltimore named Pug, finds solace and meaning in the possibility that one day he might ride with the titular 12 O’clock Boys, a notorious gang of older, similar inner-city men who spend their time tearing around the streets of Baltimore on their dirt-bikes. The point of the pack, other than to have a collective outlet to waste time in their economically downtrodden lives, is to perform the wildest and most dangerous bike tricks imaginable to—like Pug says—be the shit.
Nathan never attempts a comprehensive look into the larger socio-economic ramifications surrounding the people that populate his film, but they definitely play a part. The most superficial comparison surrounding the film is to liken it to David Simon’s remarkable HBO series The Wire, and yet to leave it at that would be too unfair and miss the basic point of the film altogether.
Through lyrical montages—sometimes including sensationalist news reports—and elegant, collage-like images—mainly focused on Pug, his younger siblings, and his single mom named Coco—Nathan draws a parallel between the gang and the way it offers a unique validation for the younger, alienated generation of lower-class kids in Baltimore. To Pug, whose father split when he was younger and whose older father-figure brother suddenly dies, the 12 O’clock Boys give his life a sense of meaning as much as it gives him a sense of rebellion against the system that made his life the way it is.
However, the broader situation is a vicious cycle. The bikes speed through the streets running circles around the law, putting themselves and those around them at risk. Yet the police rarely ever simply chase them, instead monitoring them from helicopters that track the gang’s every move like they’re impoverished mice in a city-wide maze. The constant reconnaissance further provokes the riders to be more dangerous, more ostentatious, and, unfortunately, sometimes more violent.
Nathan tracks Pug through three years of his life, unobtrusively viewing the young man’s identity through his prime years of development. At times, Pug shows signs that his undaunted spirit, wit, and intelligence could be just enough to lift him out of his gregarious rut, and at other times his destructive yearning to simply belong threatens to keep him riding the streets of Baltimore until he’s in jail or something even more tragic.
The film, however, isn’t all hardship. Nathan’s poetic slo-mo shots of the pack riding, unbroken, down long avenues or pulling off outrageous maneuvers finds the inherent beauty and order in such self-destructive behavior. It’s a small reason why the film is so good. However bad these guys are or however dangerous they may be, their bond is almost as strong as their sense of freedom. It’s an irresistible attraction that pulls Pug in, and should pull viewers in as well.