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12 O’Clock Boys: a refreshing and honest portrait of a raw subculture

Still from 12 O'clock BoysBilled as a potentially divisive opening film, 12 O’Clock Boys was nevertheless selected by Open City Docs Fest to commence this year’s festival. Lofty Nathan’s first feature looks at the adrenaline-pumped biker gangs of Baltimore, spray-painting a heady portrait of a pugnacious young boy who dreams of running with ‘the Pack’ and faces the hard-knock realities of inner-city life.

The film follows Pug, a precocious young tear-away who idolises the 12 O’Clock Boys, so called because members of their group must be able to wheeley at 90 degrees to the road. Due to the Baltimore police’s policy of not pursuing speeding motorcyclists for fear of causing an accident, the young men are free to race through the city streets and play a cat-and-mouse game with helicopters trying to trail them home. We follow Pug over 3 years and see his desperate yearning to join the Pack grow as he trains himself to ride, is given his first bike, and faces the challenges of growing up in Baltimore.

I really, really like this film. It’s so refreshing for someone to flood a documentary screening with heavy, thumping bass-lines and confront us with unapologetic, balls-to-the-wall attitude. Admittedly no angel, Pug nevertheless has an endearing innocence about him, and his excitement about motorbikes is infectious. Lofty certainly caught the bug, relishing in slow-motion play-backs of the Pack’s stunts, and deserves our applause for capturing the clammy thrills of riding through the city with police cars and helicopters in hot pursuit. The action is well balanced with more reflective moments, particularly from Pug’s despairing mother, who provides an invaluably down-to-earth perspective among the film’s craziness.

Being a big fan of The Wire and VICE-style documentaries, I was always going to love this film. So why were there worries about it not being to everyone’s tastes? 12 O’Clock Boys doesn’t follow the standard documentary format we’re accustomed to, nor has the somewhat worthy tone that creeps into many other films. Instead, we see aesthetic trends from the new generation of documentary filmmakers and, while some may dislike the precedence given to atmosphere and lavish cinematography over raw facts and ethnographic theses, it feels right given that this is a subculture so obsessed with performance and who would love nothing more than seeing their stunts broadcast around the world.

Having said all that, I came away feeling that I wanted more. The film is relatively short and, although the ending was a mind-bending twist, it wasn’t the satisfying conclusion I was rooting for. For that reason, I hope 12 O’ Clock Boys is a beginning. I hope it’s the beginning of a fantastic career for director Lofty Nathan, and the beginning of a new documentary saga about Pug and his journey into the future.

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Jacob recently completed the MA in Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester and currently works as a qualitative researcher by day and filmmaker/film journalist by night. His favourite documentaries are The Last Train Home, Hoop Dreams, and Encounters At The End Of The World. He’s also a big fan of VICE and loves long sessions watching short documentaries.

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