Set in the rotting, bombed-out Detroit of the crack epidemic ‘80s, director Yann Demange’s White Boy Rick is a grittier, more modestly-scaled riff on the sort of based-on-a-true-story criminal rise-and-fall sagas we’ve all seen a million times before in such films as Blow and the more recent American Made. But what sets it a notch or two above rote familiarity is its cast, featuring a charismatic, white trash-with-a-heart-of-gold turn from a mulletted Matthew McConaughey and a naturalistically low-key performance from newcomer Richie Merritt.
With his narcoleptic, sleepy-eyed vibe and wispy, peach fuzz mustache, Merritt’s Rick Wershe Jr. is a hard-luck teenager who seems doomed from birth. His father (McConaughey) deals knock-off AK-47s out of the trunk of his car and his older sister (a feral Bel Powley) is a strung-out junkie seemingly too far gone to be saved. McConaughey is an infectiously odd kind of optimist. He talks about his lion-sized entrepreneurial spirit and the promise of the American dream, but the next minute he’s dealing high-caliber death to gangbangers, which puts him on the radar of a pair of FBI agents, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane.
The feds have the goods on McConaughey’s Rick Sr., but they kind of like him a bit, too. It’s hard not to. Still, they blackmail Merritt’s Rick Jr. into becoming a baby-faced drug dealer and undercover informant to keep his father out of jail despite the fact that he’s just 14. Once again, the deck is stacked against this kid – and Merritt allows you to see the vulnerability beneath his outward swagger. Rick, or “White Boy Rick” as he will soon be named by the young black dealers he falls in with, is a natural born hustler. Maybe because of his young age, or all of the misery his family has endured, he blends into gang life with ease and without fear. He barely seems like he has a pulse at times, even when he’s nearly murdered in cold blood by one of his best friends (Raekwon Haynes).
The script, which was written by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller, shows more compassion to the crack-slinging Rick Jr. than some folks will find appropriate. And I wouldn’t argue with them. The film’s biggest flaw is that it never really answers the question of why his life is more precious than the hundreds or thousands he destroyed with his lethally addictive product. The movie asks for a level of sympathy it never quite earns. And its morality is maddeningly murky.
Still, Demange (whose previous film was the powerhouse ’71, about a British soldier trapped in Northern Ireland) gives White Boy Rick a propulsive momentum and a scuzzy sense of place that holds your attention and never lets go. Loosely based on a true story, Rick would eventually get busted and sentenced to life imprisonment at age 17. The film wants you to see this as a tragedy. A miscarriage of justice for another victim of the era’s stringent “Just say no” drug laws. I couldn’t entirely embrace that sentiment, but I was certainly captivated seeing the world, in all of its grim ugliness, through White Boy Rick’s jaded eyes for two hours. B