Documentary filmmaker Lotfy Nathan apparently began creating 12 O'Clock Boys with one question in mind: Who are these gangs of kids barreling around Baltimore on dirt bikes? His film answers that question but leaves the audience with many more. The "12 o'clock boys" in question are pretty much what they seem—a loosely organized group of young men who share a love of high speeds, nail-biting stunts and evading the local cops. The short documentary follows 12-year-old Pug, a small kid with a big, cheeky mouth who dreams of riding with the "flock." Pug's mother, naturally, would prefer he didn't, but the hyperactive tween will not be deterred, and over the course of three summers, we watch him grow from a fairly sweet kid to a foulmouthed punk and fully fledged 12 o'clock boy. It's unclear how we should feel about this. The film briefly notes that some riders have been killed or seriously injured and are a danger to pedestrians and drivers. But, as an older member points out, in comparison to the kids in these impoverished neighborhoods who are joining gangs or dealing drugs, dirt-bike riding is a relatively positive activity. With so many advocacy documentaries on screens of late, Nathan's unwillingness to take a side is refreshing—most of the film features Pug fooling around or pontificating about his life, interspersed with slow-mo footage of the bikers zooming about town. But the lack of other perspectives or statistics means we spend an awful lot of time watching bikers pull the same handful of tricks over and over again. Nathan clearly hasn't made up his mind whether the 12 o'clock boys are ruthless menaces or misunderstood thrill-seekers. But he doesn't give us enough information to make up ours, either.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: 12 O'Clock Boys opens Friday at the Clinton Street Theater. It also plays at 3 pm Saturday, Feb. 1, at the Hollywood Theatre.