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Sundance 2020: Charm City Kings, Save Yourselves!, Blast Beat

Angel Manuel Soto's “Charm City Kings” is a movie with big dreams. It wants to bring you into a rich world through the exhilarating spectacle of dirt bike riding, and also tell the timeless story of a boy becoming a man with the right and wrong influences. And it wants to do so with a script that recalls classics like “A Bronx Tale,” '90s hood movies, and even "The Fast and the Furious." Part of the thrill in watching Soto’s film is seeing the film own its influences, and make a name for itself. Baltimore is a big city and “Charm City Kings” gives it memorable characters (and dirt bike stunts) to match. 

At the center is a truly incredible performance from Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Mouse. He contains a whole lot, and from the beginning you want him to pursue his interests—dirt bike riding and taking care of animals, without losing his way. He’s a hot shot when hanging out with his two friends Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis), and trying to impress Nicki (Chandler DuPont), the new girl in the neighborhood. But just the same, he can be intricately shy when it comes to telling her how he got the name Mouse. You can see so many different parts to this character through Winston’s performance, and it also creates the very real stakes of wondering which mentor is going to win out in guiding Mouse—William Catlett’s calm and collected Detective Rivers, or Blax (Meek Mill), a member of a sketchy dirt bike gang that Mouse looks up to. Both of them had history with Mouse’s older brother Stro, who was killed in the past but got Mouse hooked on the Baltimore scene of dirt bike riding. 

The world of “Charm City Kings” was inspired by by Lotfy Nathan’s must-see documentary “12 O’Clock Boys,” which goes into the culture behind dirt bike riding in Baltimore, and even has more information about why dirt bikes are so important to the city. In this version, dirt bikes help create a sense that is both mythical and dangerous, like how cars feel to the characters in "The Fast and the Furious." They are given a grandiose quality by Katelin Arizmendi’s jaw-dropping cinematography, which has its own energy and smoothness that matches the bikes. Her work along with the bikes makes for an especially composed, nerve-wracking chase early on the film, with riders darting away from cop cars down narrow alleys. The sequence is worthy of IMAX, but also just one of the ways the camera makes the film's world seem huge, and equally gorgeous and daunting for a boy liked Mouse. 

The dirt bikes aren’t the main focus of the story, so much as something that informs the culture. “Charm City Kings” really leans into the “A Bronx Tale” inspiration that one of the producers cited during the world premiere Q&A, with the two different influences fighting over a wannabe dirt bike rider who is in danger of going to the extreme. Payne's script goes for big drama, and the actors are up for it across the board; the scenes with Meek Mill and Winston are especially great, as Blax tries to give Mouse an understanding of responsibility, even though Blax's motor bike shop is tangled up with criminal activity. And when Mill doesn't share the screen with Winston, all eyes are on Mill, and how he expresses with small movements of his body and eyes Blax's hard-learned sense of right and wrong.

Written by Sherman Payne (with story credit to Kirk Sullivan, Christopher M. Boyd, and Barry Jenkins), “Charm City Kings” is expansive but able to beautifully blend the many different pieces of Mouse's life. There are certainly moments in which it takes a convenient left turn—like a confrontation that suddenly turns into a vet emergency—but the scenes nonetheless unfold with grace. Even the ending has something that poignantly balances an indie’s audaciousness with the soundness of a story that is aiming for the biggest audience possible. 

“Charm City Kings” can have familiar elements while introducing a new cinematic world, but the cast helps place the film in a lineage of great coming-of-age crime dramas. And when a joke is made about Meek Mill's character being like Mr. Miyagi in "The Karate Kid," it's not a feeling of a rip-off, but an acknowledgement of how Mill has made a legendary type of character his own. “Charm City Kings” is an incredible triumph from a slew of fresh talent, including director Soto and his leads that you hope to see a lot more of.  

Save Yourselves!” is a nifty two-hander movie that takes place on "the year we lost Earth." New York couple Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds) are almost like a parody of the kind of people they hang out with, starting with a scene in which their legs are intertwined while they're both on their phones, leading to an argument about Jack deleting all of Su’s “tabs” (as in her laptop's browser tabs). But Su and Jack prove to be a watchable couple that can work and take on challenges together, like when they decide to go off-line for a weekend and stay at a friend’s place up in the mountains. 

Written and directed by Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, “Save Yourselves!” balances a light-hearted look at figuring stuff out with your partner, and lets them unite against a major problem—an alien invasion. At first they don’t know about it because their phones are off, which is a funny idea for everyone’s fantasy of disconnecting, at least for a while. By around the halfway point, the movie kicks into its lo-fi threats of invasion, with chaos brought by puffy little footstool-sized aliens appear in the woods. 

The movie doesn’t have a great imagination for sci-fi, but that’s where the acting comes in. Mani and Reynolds are an excellent on-screen couple that you want to spend time with, even if their dry humor or Millennial-surrogacy isn’t your style. And through impressive work that puts mostly them only on camera, they are able to create the film’s strange environment through their growing paranoia, but also their problem-solving. The ending to “Save Yourselves!” is a little slight—showing the shortness of its sci-fi vision—but you’re more likely to take away the collective charisma behind two fleshed-out, phone-abandoning Millennials more than anything else. 

There's a grave lack of subtlety to the big drama within “Blast Beat,” which hits everything on the nose, in spite of telling a story with complicated ideas of identity and maturity. Moises and Mateos Arias star in director Esteban Arango's film as two brothers who move from Colombia to America, along with their mother (Diane Guerrero). It’s a chance to meet up with their father (Wilmer Vanderrama), who they haven’t seen in months. But it’s also because Mateos’ metalhead brother, Carly, wants to one day work for NASA, and is going to achieve that by first getting into the Georgia Aerospace Institute. 

“Blast Beat” starts by showing their lives in Colombia, where Teo is a destructive troublemaker, and Matias has a knack for solar panels, and a relationship with a woman named Mafe. All of those factors play out when they move to Georgia, but as the movie gets to its coming-of-age it gets very broad about the culture shock, or growth. Instead it’s about asserting Teo’s festering aggression, and Matias’ promise, which goes so far that he lies to a college in order to audit something run by a former astronaut (Daniel Dae Kim). 

The film wants to talk about so many topics, and yet it ends up shortchanging all of them so that it can make for one massive emotional scene after the next. “Blast Beat” becomes unfocused as it goes through a whole list of different problems that the brothers have to overcome, so much that a briefly shocking subplot about a deportation in the family seems to be forgotten about five minutes later. It doesn’t even define the term “blast beat”—a type of heavy metal drumming—but it does feature at least three scenes in which Carly is seen speaking eloquently about satellites, and right over the audience’s heads. “Blast Beat” constantly tries to prove itself, instead of letting anything play out naturally.  

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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