Jahi Di’Allo Winston (“Everybody Sucks”) gives a phenomenal, breakout performance as Mouse, a Baltimore kid who is pushed and pulled by the world around him. His single mother (Teyonah Parris) grieves the loss of Mouse’s older brother, but Mouse has reached that turning point when he’s not content to let mom or her officer friend Rivers (William Catlett) tell him what to do. He’s naturally drawn toward the dirt-bike riders who dominate the streets of Baltimore with their flash and edge, pushing the boundaries of the law in ways that would intrigue any kid looking for some excitement in his life. With his buddies Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis), they approach the bike club that gets all the attention, and Mouse finds himself being “Mr. Miyagi-ed” by a famous ex-con named Blax (Meek Mill, who brings authenticity to the bike club scene given his connection to the culture).
Blax helps Mouse work on bikes in his shop, teaching him about the culture and offering life lessons, even as Mouse is increasingly enticed by the more illegal activities of the club and what they could do for his life. The kid who was once interested in becoming a veterinarian turns away from working with animals to the quick cash promised by the club. As he also draws closer to a new girl on the block named Shay (Milan Ray), Mouse does what so many kids have a tendency to do: he matures too quickly. Before you know it, he’s saying things like “Boys wait for other people, men go out and get it,” forgetting that he is far from a man yet. “Charm City Kings” is another story of the difference between being boyhood and manhood, not just to everyone but also very specifically to this community in Baltimore, and, at its best, very specifically to a kid nicknamed Mouse.
The best parts of “Charm City Kings” pulse with emotional and physical energy, most of it courtesy of Winston and Meek Mill. Soto’s eye is still developing—although the film really pops in the bike scenes, especially a chase early on that makes me wonder if he shouldn’t do a pure action flick—but he really knows how to draw out the best in performers already, and he has a pair of stunners in these two. Winston gives one of the most heartfelt and powerful child performances I’ve seen in a very long time, making even the contrivances feel genuine and the emotional beats of the final act hit home. He pushes through the clichés of Sherman Payne’s script (from a story by Barry Jenkins) and finds emotional truth in places that more experienced actors would have completely missed. I’m going to quote our very own Nick Allen, who said last week in his review of another Sundance movie “Scare Me,” “tropes are like tracks for a roller coaster—it’s a matter of how they’re put to use.” Winston rides even the most familiar rails here with confidence and charisma. The kid is going to be a star.