Wheel dreams

Lotfy Nathan, born in England of Egyptian Jews, was an student at Baltimore's Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) when he learned about the Sunday groupings -- don't say gang -- of black men and youths lawlessly riding dirt bikes en masse on city streets, running circles around police cars. One of their titles was "12 O'Clock Boys," for their signature style of riding the bikes straight-up, one wheel on the ground, the front wheel perpendicular above it, pointing toward 12 o'clock, dare-devil style.

Nathan, being young, fearless, and full of enthusiasm, easily introduced himself into Baltimore ghetto culture. The bike riders he found congregated from all parts of the inner city in Druid Hill Park on Sundays liked to be filmed. They made their own self-filming, on videotapes and posted on YouTube, the key to their legend, and they welcomed his camera. He made friends and gained contact with a faction called the WOWBOYZ, who helped him to follow the dirt bikers in action and film them.

But the young neophyte documentarian needed an organizing principle. He found it in a pint-sized 11, 12- 13-year-old (the filming went on for three years) called Pug (real name Tyquan Ford), a boy with cute braided rattail hair, bright clothes, a smiling, sunny face. Pug had an inexhaustible enthusiasm for 12 O'Clock Boys and his desire to be admitted to their official ranks never flags, even when, later on, his bike is stolen. They are his idols and his heroes and his male role models. And furthermore, despite his pint size, he rides well. Pug is a shy boy, perhaps, but, eager to voice his dreams, he speaks freely to Nathan's camera. His excitement is real and palpable. (There are additional other cameras enlisted to film some spectacular sequences of the riders on the streets.)

Nathan also got close to the outspoken and open mother of Pug, Coco, who used to be an exotic dancer, and now is working to be a nurse practitioner (he talks about becoming a veterinarian). She is struggling to be a good mother amidst the danger and economic hardship of the Westside, one of the poorest urban areas in the USA. It's a constant tug of war between Coco, who wants Pug to be responsible and do his schoolwork, and Pug, who wants to be wandering out on the streets among the dirt bikers.

One writer has suggested this film as a palliative for viewers jonesing for "The Wire." (Does anyone remember Charles S. Dutton's 6-hour Baltimore (2000) mini-series "The Corner" about doomed addicts? However, though people are dying all the time and we know these things are happening all around, 12 O'Clock Boys is not about crime or drugs. It's more about dreams and hope. The art of Nathan's somewhat wild and loose film is that it anchors itself with Pug and Coco while it revolves around the world of their neighborhoods (they move during the course of the film) and the charisma and foolishness of Pug's and his older comrades' wheel dreams. The dirt bike culture is a focus of hope because with it members can excel, and also defy. Though their members get killed in accidents every year, they often get the better of the cops. This is primarily because there is a standoff. The police cars are not allowed -- officially anyway; there are intentional flukes -- to tail the dirt bikers because it could endanger the public. Their cars also cannot go where the dirt bikes can go. This leads the police to rely on helicopters -- heightening the sensation the men have of warfare against alien invaders. But there are police chase scenes in this film, as well as beautifully filmed slo-mo sequences of the bikers riding the wave.

When the dreamer Pug's more grounded older brother Tibba dies of an asthma attack, it's hard for the family, and Pug is deeply shaken. He begins using much more oath-laced language (as does Coco) than he did a year or so younger, and his fatalistic outlook is revealed in his declaration to the camera, "tomorrow is a day not promised. You could die any minute." Funerals are frequent in his world. Coco keeps telling him the dirt bikes are nowhere, are danger, but he is only more determined in his obsession with them. They are vile to some, and sublime to others. And though they may be illegal and dangerous, they're not the downward path drug dealing is. If drugs are the alternative, bikes are positive. Or are they just a shiny pastel-colored version of the same negative world? Nathan's vivid, colorful, engaging film encourages us to rethink things, retune our thoughts and senses to Pug's and Coco's worlds as they face crossroads and big decisions. Other figures such as the older males Bam and Shawn Sean reminisce about how they entered the 12 o'clock boys' world and we get more perspective on the role it plays in their lives.

If Lotfy Nathan's filming and editing are rough and ready as well as exciting and poetic, his DIY style fits well with the improvisational, seat-of-your-pants ways of Baltimore street life. And things could go either way. At the end Pug is involved in a dangerous re-theft of a stolen bike; but there are also signs that his school work may be improving. Nathan also talks to come cops about a controversial case when a dirt biker died on the street, and hears the voices of adults in the community who offer Pug sage advice, though the call of 12 o'clock glory still has its pull on him. This is a promising debut for Lotfy Nathan, who has found his calling as a filmmaker. Some of the dramatic footage glamorizing Pug's idols has hip-hop background a a boy's choir. The images are vivid and sometimes beautiful. As Pug says in a wonderful quote from an enthusiastic Baltimore City Paper article about him and the film, "Police try to say like were a gang. Its not a gang, Pug says. "Were like a flock of birds flying in the sky, like a school of fish swimming in the ocean, following each other." Nobody describes the joy of riding in the flock better than Pug.

The 12 O'Clock Boys TRAILER is thrilling; it also airs some of the string of superlatives that have been attached to it by critics. A good interview with Nathan by Jordan M. Smith appeared on "Ioncinema!".

12 O'Clock Boys, 76 mins., debuted in competition in March 2013 at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Released in the US by Oscillioscope, it opens January 31, 2014 in NY, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore, and 10 other markets and comes out simultaneously on VOD and digital.

COCO AND PUG, Jefferson Jackson Steel/City Paper

Reviews are out and generally favorable: Metascore 71.