The first time we see the group of mostly young adult dirt bikers cruising down the streets of lower class Baltimore neighborhoods in “12 O’Clock Boys,” the speed and intensity of their risky, unauthorized stunt work has been translated into poetry: Pitching backwards in slo-mo as they point to the sky, the riders take on the elegance of Olympic champions. Yet Lotfy Nathan’s contemplative portrait pits this lyrical dimension against the life-threatening dangers of the act and the root causes for such extreme antics, delivering an astute look at how social conditions can lead to an audacious form of rebellion that, in spite of its elegance, makes matters worse.
Rather than merely observing the scene from a distance, Nathan roots this study in the perspective of an innocent adolescent, Pug, whose lust for engaging in the dirt bike stunts he initially witnesses as a bystander evolves over the course of the three years in which the movie follows his development. Hailing from an impoverished single parent household, Pug is the paragon of the outcast mentality that comprises Baltimore’s risky dirt bike scene.
In a swift montage of media reports, Nathan lays out the stakes: As the bikers roar down the tight city streets, putting not only themselves but anyone nearby at risk, police are barred from chasing them out of safety concerns; instead, as if patrolling for escaped convicts, they track the group’s movements via helicopter. Such intense, ostentatious scrutiny from the law just encourages bikers to further provoke the authorities. As a result, by one officer’s estimate, countless riders die in accidents each year.
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Nevertheless, alienated youth like Pug remain drawn to the prospects of zipping down the road in staunch defiance of the larger forces that prevent them from otherwise progressing in life. Idolizing an earlier gang of “12 O’Clock Boys,” called such for their physics-defying ability to stick their bikes straight up like the hands of a clock at noon, Pug expresses a commitment to inheriting their throne. Nathan’s camera captures his protagonist through numerous stages of development, from energetic 13-year-old spectator to wild-eyed teen participant, pitting the pint-sized Pug’s likably plucky demeanor against his burgeoning capacity for endangering himself. It’s enough of a concern that even the filmmaker, in one of his few missteps, can’t help talking back to his subject from behind the camera as Pug grows increasingly restless, vulgar-mouthed and neglectful of his schoolwork.
With its collage-like structure, “12 O’Clock Boys” turns Pug into a symbol for greater societal unrest. As one seasoned dirt biker explains it, the hobby illustrates “the right way to do the wrong shit,” as it provides the only available outlet for many young men unable to explore safer pursuits. At the same time, Nathan relishes the opportunity to find the beauty in these chaotic maneuvers, stripping away the filters of media bias to present the allure of the dirt bike experience in unvarnished terms.
Eventually, the darker side of the scene merges with its ethereal qualities, so that the destructive potential of these gas-fueled hijinks becomes the determining factor in Pug’s attraction to them. “You can die in the blink of an eye,” says one biker, almost as if he’s boasting to the camera — and Nathan draws out this point by contrasting his impressive tracking shots of the bikers in the field with harsh, sudden footage of post-accident injuries (and, in some jarring cases, death).
Set to a lively soundtrack, “12 O’Clock Boys” expresses the paradox of the sport — its surface coolness and inherent recklessness — as a single, troublesome package. Visually, the movie delivers an ode to an outlaw sport few viewers may know much about; conversely, it laments the perilous extremes to which its brash stars are drawn. However, Nathan never condescends to Pug or his cohorts, instead smartly allowing their brazen maneuvers to run the show.
Criticwire grade: A-
A version of this review originally ran during the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. “12 O’Clock Boys” opens in limited release this Friday.