Directed by: Yann Demange
Premise: Based on a true story. Set in 1980s Detroit, teenager Richard Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) gets into the drug trade and becomes a local kingpin while also acting as an informant for the FBI.
What Works: White Boy Rick is a period piece, with the story set in Detroit during the 1980s. The film has a convincing look and a feel for its location and time period. The costumes and living spaces look organically of their time rather than sets dressed by a production designer. The film also has some impressively staged sequences especially those inside of a roller rink that’s a gathering spot for the local criminals. The strongest aspects of White Boy Rick dramatize the relationship between Richard Wershe Jr. and his family. The mother has abandoned them while the grandparents, played by Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie, live across the street. Wershe’s sister is a drug addict and his father trades in guns. Richard Wershe Sr. is played by Matthew McConaughey. It’s a showy performance but McConaughey imbues this father with love for his children. Richie Merritt plays Richard Wershe Jr. and he’s terrific in the part. Hollywood films tend to make young characters precocious but Merritt looks and acts like a teenager. That illustrates the central point of the movie; this kid with a dysfunctional but otherwise normal family was running a major drug operation. Merritt’s performance makes that premise credible.
What Doesn’t: White Boy Rick is a gangster picture but it doesn’t satisfy in the way those kinds of films typically do. It doesn’t have the appeals that viewers generally look for in the genre. White Boy Rick also doesn’t try to reinvent the gangster film or take the genre in different directions. The story moves forward in fits and starts. White Boy Rick begins very well but the movie loses its energy. The film frequently sags especially in its second half. Some of the movie’s faults are in its lack of focus. Richard Wershe Jr.’s life is bizarre but the filmmakers present it as a mostly average crime story and they don’t have anything interesting to say about it. There is a lot going on here from the way the FBI used and ultimately betrayed Wershe and his family and how he, as a white teenager, was able to integrate into a black dominated drug market and ultimately take it over. Perhaps most misjudged is the way the film deals with Wershe’s jail sentence. Early on it is stressed that Wershe is at less risk than his African American counterparts because if caught he faces “white time” whereas they will be sentenced to “black time” but the movie undoes that. The way the film concludes suggests that the injustice of Wershe’s sentence is the crux of the film but it comes across as an afterthought. What White Boy Rick might be saying about drug sentencing laws or the relationship between race and class and criminal justice is unclear and bungled by the filmmakers.
Bottom Line: White Boy Rick has good performances and a vivid sense of place but it’s unclear what the filmmakers are trying to say about this extraordinary true story. The movie lacks focus and fails to keep the viewer engaged.
Episode: #717 (September 23, 2018)