The uneven documentary “12 O’Clock Boys” is curiously nonjudgmental toward its subject, an inner-city group of dirt-bike and ATV riders who travel Baltimore’s streets en masse, weaving through traffic, performing wheelies and thumbing their noses at police. The cops don’t like it, but they are under orders not to chase the bikers, to forestall accidents.
Many locals are equally unhappy, but that’s not the case with Pug, a 13-year-old who’s in awe of the riders’ potentially hazardous stunts.
The film follows Pug over several years, alternating an impressionistic portrait of the young man with striking footage of the 12 O’Clock Boys doing their thing. The group’s name derives from the members’ practice of riding on their rear wheels so their vehicles are almost completely vertical, like the hands pointing at 12 on a clock face.
Pug regards the 12 O’Clock Boys as heroes of a sort, whose defiance is both an escape from, and a righteous response to, the hardships of life in economically challenged neighborhoods.
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Director Lotfy Nathan gives some riders a chance to talk. He also acknowledges, perhaps too briefly, that the rides are genuinely hazardous.
You might wish that the film were more polished, but there’s a bigger problem. The film’s implication, that the rides need to be curtailed, seems obvious; I can’t help thinking that Nathan realizes this, but stops short. Taking a stand would have made the film stronger, and might even have been helpful to young Pug and his peers.