If you've watched the critically acclaimed HBO series "The Wire," you probably have some reference point for the lay of the land in Baltimore, Maryland. The show painted a portrait of a deeply troubled city, riddled with crime, plagued with segregation and an American dream fast becoming a nightmare. "12 O'Clock Boys" follows the map of the gritty life seen in that program but takes a left turn, all on the rumbling seat of a dirt bike.

Baltimore is home to one of the oddest and thrilling pastimes in modern urban American life. Hundreds of young men have turned the city's busy streets into a hit-to-pass hot-dogging demolition derby. Motorbikes, motorcycles, souped-up four-wheeler ATVs, and an army of transportation trucks have taken over the main-ways and thoroughfares of Baltimore, buzzing around like a bunch of angry hornets.

Here' the kicker: the cops can't do much about it. Trying to chase down anyone doing acrobatic tricks and mugging for smartphone videos on a motorbike is the perfect recipe for a terrible accident. The law of the land states that the police may not pursue these maniacs for that reason. For black youth stuck in the rut of the classic American ghetto, this phenomenon is a truly creative escape.

Enter Pug. He's just a kid. He is precocious, street-wise beyond his years and he lives in a tough Baltimore neighbourhood. Really tough. 26-year-old director Lofty Nathan decided it was worth hanging out with Pug for a multi-year period to try and give some context to his life. He's a little short for his age, but makes up for it with his fast mouth. Sporting perfect cornrows, Pug loves animals and goofing off with his friends from his street, but nothing comes close to how he feels about motorsports. He is fixated on an elite group of torque-crazy wheely-loving daredevils called The 12 O'Clock Boys.

If you take a closer look at his home life, it's no wonder poor Pug is desperate to join this club of lawless freewheelers. He has lots of friends and a close-knit family, but things are tough. His father is in jail, his older brother is dead and his mom can't seem to keep Pug or herself on an even keel. A former stripper, Coco has many choice words for Pug, most of them unfit to print. She preaches the dangers involved with bikes and wilding on the streets, but Pug is deaf to her warnings. He claims he wants to be a veterinarian one day, with a cornucopia of critters around the house, including a pitbull, but the bulk of his attention is focused on his four-wheeler and his dirtbike. When the 12 O'Clock Boys come up the road, he stops everything to go get a look.

It's hard for Nathan to capture everything that makes-up Pug's ride through life. By the film's completion, Pug is two years older and a different kid: tougher, less animated and even more focussed on bike culture. There is solace in knowing that riding acts as an escape for all the kids on bikes in Baltimore. It's clear that going fast acts as relief from the rough corners of the city. But the question lingers as to where this bright, young light will end up.

Hot Docs has a lot to offer this year, but no documentary will wow you with the type of imagery offered in this film. It's something to behold when motorcycles and ATVs are doing tricks while weaving in and out of busy traffic. It's even more startling to see that they are being stalked and engaged by police cars and helicopters. Lofty Nathan has done an incredible job telling a personal story while capturing a bizarre and action-packed phenomenon.


Mon, April 29, 8:15 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Wed, May 1, 1:30 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Sat, May 4, 9:30 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

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Hot Docs Day 4: "TPB AFK"

Hot Docs Day 3: "15 Reasons To Live"

Hot Docs Day 2: "Good Ol' Freda"

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categories Movies