12 O’Clock Boys is a short documentary with a lot to say. It primarily follows Pug, a 13-year-old troublemaker who gets lured into a group of illegal dirt-bikers. The gang calls itself the 12 O’Clock boys because the members perform extended vertical wheelies and dangerous balancing acts, while weaving precariously through the urban Baltimore streets. They bike in a group of sometimes 50 members, disobeying traffic regulations and speed limits. For them, this is a spiritual, liberating weekly activity.
For the police, it poses serious problems. Squad cars are not allowed to chase the bikers to prevent any further crashes or injuries, so helicopters circle their nightly renegades to track them down. Lofty Nathan, directing his first feature-length film, works to expose both perspectives. Audience members may have an immediate reaction and opinion about these riders’ stunts and subsequent pursuit by authorities, but it is not because Nathan gives them one.
Viewers get intimate points-of-view instead. Nathan mimics the bikers’ eye lines by speeding through the streets on an incline. He creates a shaky ground level perspective by dangling himself out of his car, treading rubber parallel with these road demons. You feel like you are riding along with the group. There are some beautiful slow motion shots too, as though these men and young boys are superheroes in their broken towns. One of them actually calls himself Superman.
These boys are mythical figures in a way. As they sporadically barrel down highways and alleys, they are greeted on sidewalks by hordes of onlookers, camera phones aimed in their direction. The group gets affirmation from YouTube hits, and its stunts are just as much about the thrill of spectacle as they are about marketing.
Pug, our budding moto-star, desperately tries to fit into this lifestyle, much to the dismay of his single mother. She lost her first son Tibba and is now losing her second one to the streets, as he gets lost within the messy, inner-city. School and structure appear to lose their priority, and Pug, over the three years Nathan follows him, starts feeling like a lost cause.
You want to see Pug succeed and break out of this lifestyle. At one point he mentions how much he loves where he lives because Baltimore rarely receives any natural disasters. Of course, what he does not see is the systemic poverty that continues to grow in his neighborhood. It is something even Steve, a former dirt biker, who is now the group’s protective agent, knows can cripple the community. Pug loves animals and once had dreams of becoming a veterinarian. When his passion for riding grows, he rejects his original aspiration.
Hopefully he sees riding as a fad. As other talking heads and policemen explain, however, this is how eggs turn bad. The bikes are dangerous, but the lack of family, structure and guidance is bigger reason. The news reports, the death toll and the vitriol toward police continue to increase. The power and dialogue we get is not mined, but observed. By the end of this 72-minute peek, Pug has his bike stolen and Nathan helps him reclaim it. We do not see how things turn out. However, we know that Pug has grown up from his teen adoration. He has fallen victim to becoming another hardened young man.
The documentary is playing at the Angelika and AMC Empire Theaters.