Seduction and rebellion are at the heart of "12 O'Clock Boys," Maryland Institute College of Art alum Lotfy Nathan's extraordinary exploration of Baltimore's outlaw dirt bike culture, as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy desperately yearning to be part of it.
For three years, beginning in spring 2010, Nathan and his cameras track the youngster, who goes by the nickname Pug. The camera watches as Pug is seduced by the speed, by the outrageousness and by the notoriety these dirt bikes offer. It tracks, in detail alternately amusing and heartbreaking, the rebellion at the heart of Pug's desire (which makes him no different than every other teenager who has ever bristled under his parents' watchful and protective eyes). And it watches, dispassionately if not helplessly, as his desperate mother and other relatives despair over what they can (or should) do.
"It ain't really safe in Baltimore … it's always somethin'," a thoughtful Pug says in voice-over near the beginning of the film — and for the next hour-plus, Nathan's film documents much of what that somethin' is. This is the story of people who have no confidence in anything but their own image — not family, not authority, certainly not the future. As one observer notes, "You will learn the right way to do all the wrong s—— in Baltimore city."
"12 O'Clock Boys" — the ideal way to drive your bike down the street is with the wheels straight up in the air, as close to 12 o'clock as possible — shows the culture for what it is: thrilling, compelling and more than a little dangerous. For kids like Pug, Nathan suggests, it may be all they have. In the course of the film, we see Pug's older brother die, we see his mother pull up roots and move the family to another part of the city, we see Pug get his bike stolen, we hear Pug blithely talk about beating up a kid at school, we see the bike gangs as they taunt police while roaring down the streets, unconcerned about anyone else.
At the center, always, is Pug, young, charismatic, vulnerable in ways he'll never acknowledge. He's clearly smart and, when not popping wheelies or dreaming of the outlaw life, tends to a menagerie of animals that — as his at-her-wit's-end mother notes — suggests he'd make a great veterinarian.
"12 O'Clock Boys" is one-third cautionary tale, one-third investigative reporting and one-third .... well, if Nathan's film has a fault, it's that it drops the ball on that final third and never really wrestles with some of the issues it brings up. There's much attention paid to the bikers themselves, and to the culture they've helped to spread. What isn't addressed — and here's guessing this was a conscious decision, not an accidental oversight — is the larger context of it all. How is the community affected? How about the innocent drivers and pedestrians who feel threatened by these bikers and their cowboy antics? Other than forbidding the police from chasing them, what, if anything, is the city doing?
Not that Nathan should be putting together an episode of "Frontline," but the film does leave some ends dangling.
Still, "12 O'Clock Boys" opens a window that needs opening. In one image that speaks volumes, a stern-faced Pug faces the camera, almost as it he's staring down his own future, while an exuberant dirt-biker — and Nathan's slow-motion camera extends this moment of visual poetry, almost to its breaking point — passes by joyously behind him.
"Tomorrow's a day not promised," Pug offers when asked why he keeps doing what he's doing, before adding, in an aside typical of the film's pervasive insight, "You could die any minute."