Charm City Kings employs a lot of the typical tropes of coming of age stories— a precocious protagonist with youthful aspirations of an epic summer and riding bikes throughout the streets of his hometown. Mouse, Lamont, and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis) try to court the new girl on the block and sneak out of their homes to watch people perform bike tricks in the street and try some out themselves. It’s this framework of normal teenage exploits that make the turmoil they must endure to sustain it all the heartbreaking.
Fathers are conspicuously absent in the film and there’s no real diversity of occupations. Outside of Detective Rivers (William Catlett), a police officer, and Meek Mill’s character Blax, a mechanic, the only signs of manhood these three young men see on a constant basis are the unruly Midnight Clique who ride through Baltimore with ostensible immunity, starting street chases with police officers for thrills and using dating apps to coordinate an illegal enterprise. Coming of age as a Black boy in a place like Baltimore where more than a third of children live below the poverty line sometimes means your role models are the ones making money the quickest because rent bills don’t wait for 401k plan residuals.
Mouse is wise beyond his years, an aspiring veterinarian able to deliver a kitten in his bathroom and recite random animal facts that amaze adults twice his age. Yet, coming of age in the ‘hood often means existing in a volatile purgatory between adulthood and childhood, swinging between both extremes trying to get a handle on each to bring them together. The child in Mouse saw the eviction notices his single mother was piling up and instinctively wanted to help. The man being forced out of him by his reality ironically gets him removed from the same house he was trying to save by the same mother he was trying to help. It’s painful ironies such as these that Black families have dealt with for decades.
The intense argument between Mouse and his mother which led to Mouse’s removal is a harrowing highlight of Charm City Kings that perfectly exemplifies the complications of a child growing into manhood. In front of camera angles tight enough for the nuances to tell the story under the pain Mouse’s mother, played with warm yet firm authority by If Beale Street Could Talk actress Teyonah Parris, berates him for hiding a large sum of money he amassed by seemingly partaking in the same illegal activity that led to his older brother’s death. You can see her eyes drowning in a wave of tears as she looks at her teenage child assert his newfound manhood with a mix of contempt and fear.
She pushes her son out the nest into the same streets she fears will swallow him whole because she can’t bear to see him come of age by risking his life. Honestly, if Winston wasn’t the lead actor, it's tough to say whether the core message of this film would hit as hard. The sixteen-year-old actor makes you believe every word he says and can go from the ferocity of an aspiring gang member to the ebullient softness of a goofy teenager without losing any believability.