Films about crime abound, but where they take us and what they say is what really matters. 12 O'Clock Boys and LICKS both have the potential to contribute something new to the discourse on poverty and crime in society, but only one succeeds.
SXSW Film Day 3City: Austin, Texas
Venue: Paramount Theatre & Violet Crown Theatre
SXSW Film 2013 offers up plenty of crime-related programming from documentaries to narrative features to horror films. Of the selections that deal with inner-city drama, two were hotly anticipated: Lotfy Nathan's documentary debut, 12 O'Clock Boys, and Jonathan Singer-Vine's Oakland-based drama, LICKS. Both films deal with young black men trying to make their way in violent, impoverished neighborhoods, but their similarities end there. These compelling pieces demonstrate the diversity of films at SXSW as well as the very different paths that filmmakers take to tackle classic urban themes.
Lotfy Nathan's 12 O'Clock Boys seems relatively simple at the outset: 13-year-old Pug will do anything he can to be accepted by Baltimore's 12 O'Clock Boys, an illegal dirtbike crew who ride the streets and do wholly vertical wheelies (hence their name). At the beginning of the doc, we're introduced to Pug and his mom, Coco. We immediately see that young Pug simply doesn't have many recreation opportunities where he lives. Inner city Baltimore is notorious for gang violence, drug abuse and extreme tensions between police and citizens. This is where Pug lives.
12 O Clock Boys
Somehow, Nathan takes what seems like a simple boyhood dream of belonging to a group of dirtbike riders and turns it into a documentary that is impressive in both its emotional power and in its cinematic achievement. 12 O'Clock Boys is one of the most beautifully shot documentaries I've seen in the last five years—and I'm including all the docs I've watched at home during late-night "I want to know the truth!" binges. Pug is the perfect subject for the documentary because his ghetto-honed sharpness is balanced out by a certain naivety. We feel compelled to root for him even if we don't really think he should be out riding a four-wheeler or dirtbike on the streets of Baltimore illegally.
What makes 12 O'Clock Boys so effective is that Nathan is able to differentiate between illegal and criminal. Yes, the dirtbike riders of Baltimore are breaking the law. But in a city plagued by gang violence, street fights and regular stabbings or shootings, we have to wonder if what they're doing is entirely wrong in the moral sense. Nathan doesn't answer that question for us, which makes the film more credible. Instead, he uses interviews with Baltimore residents, business owners, and a handful of police officers to help us understand the utter polarization of the ghetto. The residents distrust the cops; the cops distrust the residents. They don't even need reasons anymore: That's just the way it is.
* * *
LICKS, a new film by Jonathan Singer-Vine, also deals with this inner-city polarization. The narrative film is the story of D, a young man who is released from a two year bid in prison and must navigate life on the dangerous streets of Oakland. The film starts out strongly with an exposition of the crime for which D was sent to prison. The cinematography is particularly striking in this part of the film; gorgeous shots are mixed with an excellent soundtrack to draw viewers in. Unfortunately, much happens between the bookends of the film that doesn't quite live up to what Singer-Vine is clearly capable of achieving.
The movie's premiere began with substantial audience enthusiasm that flagged about 40 minutes into the narrative. For a movie set in the ultra-dangerous ghettos of Oakland, it moved surprisingly slow. I don't believe that crime movies must always occur at Tarantino-like speed, but there's no narrative sense of the very real panic and pressure that D is feeling. But then there were moments of absolute clarity in the film that rewarded the viewers that stuck it out, like a scene in which D makes a life-changing choice about whether or not he's going to become a pimp. Koran Streets, who plays D's friend Rell, shines as a character who elicits both disgust and sympathy from the audience.
Aside from excellent, quiet performances, the middle hour of the film doesn't seem to be headed anywhere. And then, magically, the last 15 minutes of the movie are simply amazing. They can't make up for the slowed-down narrative pace of the rest of the film, but they do allow us to see what Singer-Vine was trying to do with his story. There are tears and redemption at the end, but there's also tragedy. It's true to life on the streets to some degree, which is no small feat.
LICKS and 12 O'Clock Boys are very different films: one is a narrative, the other is a documentary. Yet despite the line between fiction and reality, they are trying to show us what life is really like in the inner city. They make us stop and think about the chances and choices that we get in life—or don't. Unfortunately, LICKS suffers from a story that is simply too slow and whose twists don't happen quickly enough (literally, in terms of scene length) in order to really hit us where it matters. If you're looking for a great story about how inner-city youth survive, check out 12 O'Clock Boys instead.