“These kids are just little bastards. These aren’t nice kids…I don’t care if they get hurt; frankly, I don’t care if one of them dies.” Thus speaks an anonymous voice on the soundtrack during the opening shot of 12 O’Clock Boys, angrily spouting off against the inner-city Baltimore kids who roam around town on their dirt bikes. The way he articulates his frustrations sounds appalling on the face of it, and one assumes, based on the first half-hour of Lotfy Nathan’s documentary, that the rest of the film would be a straight-up repudiation of such insensitivity, delving into the often troubled personal lives of some of these riders in order to suggest the circumstances that lead them to take up this technically illegal activity in the first place. But the deeper Nathan dives into this subculture, the more intriguingly conflicted his attitudes become.
One major reason for the film’s cumulatively sobering effect lies in Nathan’s decision to focus on Pug, a young teenager who aspires, over the course of the three years Nathan followed him, to become one of the 12 o’clock boys, who derive their nickname from the dirt-biking move that’s considered the sport’s athletic summit: the ability to turn a bike straight up to the sky—the 12 o’clock position, in other words—while riding. But Nathan avoids the expected sports-movie uplift of such a setup by questioning whether Pug’s goal is really worth all his efforts—including deceiving his mother and skipping school—in the first place. Not that the film is interested in easy finger-wagging. One former dirt-biker explains at one point that, compared to the usual shooting and stealing that occurs in the rougher Baltimore neighborhoods, partaking in dirt-watching, even watching bikers in action, is quite possibly the only thing that could be considered a positive influence in these residents’ lives. Nathan, however, doesn’t shy away from showing us the dark side of what might be a personally fulfilling pastime to some: Not only the accidental deaths and general danger it poses to civilians on the road, but also the problematic aspirations in inspires in impressionable youths like Pug, who seemingly turns becoming a 12 o’clock boy into his one major life goal, despite all of his mother’s concerned urgings to the contrary.
Nathan’s ambivalence extends to the film’s formal qualities as well. Throughout its brisk 75 minutes, 12 O’Clock Boys constantly divides itself between fulfilling the conventions of the informational talking-heads documentary and aiming for a more poetically impressionistic quality, especially whenever the film turns its camera back to Pug. While Nathan takes care to fill us put this dirt-biking subculture in context, filling us in on its history and deeper cultural resonance for participants and spectators alike, he also indulges in lengthy stretches of simply observing people in action, whether biking or simply living their ramshackle lives. These stretches, however, are edited with a jittery, impulsive rhythm that faintly suggests Terrence Malick—a stylistic connection strengthened by Nathan’s occasional reliance on Pug’s voiceover narration on the soundtrack, his barely articulate drawl at times recalling Linda Manz’s narration in Days of Heaven.
In short, 12 O’Clock Boys embodies an internal tug of war of sorts between Pug’s—and, perhaps by extension, Nathan’s own—impulse to valorize the freedom these bikers exude, and more grounded realizations that, as much as Pug might want to believe otherwise, there’s more to life than becoming part of an illegal, roving biker gang and achieving that “12 o’clock” pinnacle. It’s fitting, then, that the film’s final image—a repeat of its first, except with different implications this time—suggests something more ambiguous than the coming-of-age maturation one might expect: a personal triumph that’s also quite possibly a dead end.