Review: ’12 O’Clock Boys’

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More than 900 documentary features were submitted to the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival, with eight selected for competition. One of those eight is “12 O’Clock Boys,” a visually exhilarating film by first-time director Lotfy Nathan that opens a window on a distinctive urban subculture and the choices a young man faces as he grows from childhood to adolescence.

The subject of “12 O’Clock Boys” is a group of men and boys in Baltimore who ride dirt bikes on public streets, defying the law and running the risk of serious injury or death, as well as endangering other drivers and pedestrians. They also like to do tricks on their bikes, the most prestigious of which is a vertical wheelie, with the top wheel in the 12 o’clock position, hence the film’s title.

While the Baltimore police are not allowed to chase the bikers, for fear of endangering public safety, they do use helicopters as well as police cars to try to corral them, or track them to their homes, and then confiscate their bikes. The result is an escalation of conflict — the bikers taunt the police, the police respond with shows of force, the bikers become more defiant, the police crack down even harder, and on and on with no indication that either side is ready to compromise or even negotiate with the other.

The heart of “12 O’Clock Boys” is a bright, sweet-faced 12-year-old nicknamed Pug, who Nathan says “really makes the movie” by giving it a human face and thus “making it more than just a subculture film.” Pug shows promise as a biker, and is also attracted by the dirt biker culture because it provides the male role models he is missing at home — his father is not a part of his life, and his older brother dies of an asthma attack during the course of the filming.

Pug also provides structure to the film as, over three years of filming, he grows from a child to a young adolescent. The film’s dominant question is which path he will choose — the thrills and camaraderie of biker culture, or the straight and narrow path of school and church his mother favors, which could lead to his goal of becoming a veterinarian. As Nathan notes, “the film has no resolution, and ends without you knowing which way Pug will go.”

Although several social problems can be identified within the film’s story — boys growing up without fathers, a lack of positive activities for young people, and an escalating cycle of aggravation between the city police and community members — “12 O’Clock Boys” is an observational film, not a call to action or a film meant to present facts about a topic.

Nathan said he originally planned to create a more political film, citing facts and statistics about arrests and accidents, but then decided to “keep it light on the title cards” in favor of highlighting the cinematic and personal aspects of the story, and feels that choice made for a stronger film.

He doesn’t see “12 O’Clock Boys” as a particularly political film, but rather feels it meets two goals: preserving the biker culture on film, and presenting a story about “a young man on the cusp of deciding which way his life would go.” Among the influences Nathan cites for “12 O’Clock Boys” are the work of Steve James (director of “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters”), Jennie Livingston’s “Paris is Burning,” François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated film “Akira,” and Gary Weis’ “80 Blocks from Tiffany’s.”

Nathan shot most of “12 O’Clock Boys” himself, with assistance from a few friends, including Tom Colley and John Benam. Their cinematography captures the exuberance of the biker culture, the joy members feel when they execute a difficult trick, and the feeling of solidarity the bikers experience on a massed ride.

Given that visual experience, it’s easy to understand why Pug feels drawn to the bikers, and how the future of such a promising young man might get derailed before he has a chance to completely grow up.

You can read more about “12 O’Clock Boys,” and watch the trailer, on the film’s website.

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