First time director Lotfy Nathan spent the years prior to his lengthy festival circuit tour (the kick star began at SXSW) documenting war in the streets of Baltimore, though not against drugs or the classic gang-bangers of old you might guess. Instead, the city’s police force have been puzzling over an urban siege of dirt-bike riders who take the streets as mobs of wheelie-pulling speed demons with a propulsion to ride fast and fuck with the 5-0 at every given opportunity. Thanks to widespread news coverage and self produced YouTube videos, the dirt-bike gang has come to be know as the notorious 12 O’Clock Boys. Nathan’s fiery docu debut searches for the motive behind these motor heads and finds a perfect example in a glib 13 year old whose only want in life is to mount a full sized dirt-bike like the troupe of bad ass riders he regards with the highest esteem.
We are introduced to the nefarious young rider, Pug, through half garbled urbanized voice over as if some distant relative of Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. Not unlike Linda, we first see the boy on the run, but his brief sweat drenched introduction will prove to be the apex of his dangerous escapades. Two years earlier, spinning donuts on his mini four-wheeler, he speaks of his dreams of riding with the big boys, front wheel to the sky without a worry on his mind. A bright kid, but one lacking a father figure and desperately in need of more parental supervision than his poorly composed mother can offer, Pug’s attraction to the bike gang starts to grow from a gear head fascination into a downhill cultural compulsion. With the sudden death of his older brother, what little interest he had in school drifts to singular thoughts of being dirt-bike bound.
All but giving up hope of restricting her street-smart spawn, Pug’s mother is portrayed as a haggard mess of belligerence, only speaking in condemnations broken up by warped profanity. It’s really no wonder why a 13 year old kid might look for any reason to be out wandering the streets warming up to those older, seemingly wiser, and considerably warmer than his own guardian, especially if they’ve mastered the art of motor bike riding. Though Pug is unique for his dexterous riding ability and unfaltering charisma at his age, Nathan depicts him as the norm. A city dwelling youngster whose life is stalled out before it ever has a chance to hit the gas. At 15, he’s been broken by his surroundings and blinded to the potential that schooling can bear. The blinders are on. There is only the streets and Nathan is sure to spend plenty of time within them.
Witnessing the rush of bikers blasting by just feet from the curb is anxiety inducing in and of itself. You get the sense that at any second someone might eat shit and land themselves or someone else in the hospital or worse. This is why the Baltimore Police have a ‘no chase’ policy when it comes to the bike gangs, as they don’t want pedestrians to find themselves in the midst of a hot pursuit. But this poses the problem of how to crack down on them. We see bikers swarm the streets, flicking off officers and literally kicking squad cars with little retribution, but when we find ourselves in the passenger seat of a truck towing stashed bikes, on the run with a police chopper tailing above, there is a very real sense of danger. Nathan allows us to be that young kid looking on in awe, trying desperately to convey confidence, and yet worry is still written all over our face.
Whether they know it or not, Pug and his outlaw mentors are vying for control. With a battle cry of roaring engines, the act of riding seems almost acrobatic performance art expressing their impoverished discontent with the indignancies they live with day in, day out. 12 O’Clock Boys manages to harness these acts at both a heartrending personal level, with Pug, and a disparaging cultural level, venturing out into the community to witness the on street onslaughts first hand, even-handedly speaking with policemen and bikers alike. What Nathan has exquisitely captured within is a vicious poverty-induced cycle of dirt-bike rebellion. Like a war ravaged snow globe, we can look in on the chaos, but there seems no escape for those trapped inside.
Oscilloscope rarely disappoint with their lavishly designed home releases, and the 12 O’Clock Boys is no different. Stocked with enticing extras, this digitally shot doc mixes and matches cameras, from cell phones to the military grade high speed Phantomcam, some looks chopped up and noisy, some of it looks absolutely pristine. Any digital artifacts that crop up here and there are most likely due to the camera, rather than the transfer. Laced with bassy hip-hop beats and the rip roaring of dirt-bikes, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track recreates the audio action well, full, rich, though light on surround. As is usual for the distro, the disc comes in a classy recycled materials gatefold with dust jacket.
It’s always nice to see any reflective commentary from documentary filmmakers included, even if it’s just on snippets of the film, rather than in its entirety as it is here. Nathan speaks on why Pug became his main subject, why he sympathizes with Coco, how he came to meet Steven and why he’s become a crucial voice in the film, as well as the camerawork, all broken into four separate segments. 21 min
Once again presented as individual snippets, there are four appropriately titled clips included- I’m a Grown Ass Man, Pug’s Grill,Coco and Pug’s Day Out, Coco’s Future. 8 min
“Bad Bitches Drop It Low”
Basically the equivalent of the famed YouTube montage videos through which the 12 O’Clock Boys have garnered their name, this GoPro collage seems an homage to their initial rise to fame. 3 min
Giving a taste of the slow-mo stuntin’, the 5-0 pursuits, and the overflowing personality of Pug, this is a brilliantly constructed little trailer. 2 min
Nathan’s onscreen portrayal of Baltimore is a grim, but wholly alive piece of documentary filmmaking. Pug is such a rebellious youth whose hard-edged persona is nothing but a front that tries desperately to hide the fear, heartbreak, confusion and disappointment inherent to his upbringing. Nathan allows his young subject to present himself on his own terms, but his watchful lens has captured something much more subtle in the facial expressions that creep out, unaware and true. Yet, in allowing his subjects to play to camera and occasionally play back via seeming encouragement, 12 O’Clock Boys fails to criticize the failings of this cyclic situation of rather pointless rebellion and retaliation that Pug so desperately wants to be a part of. One should not partake in the action without at least acknowledging the murky moral ground one is riding on. That said, it’s certainly fun to ride on the wild side.