There’s a “where are they now” at the end of “White Boy Rick ,” an astonishing true story about a teenager in a rough part of Detroit in the 1980s who became an undercover FBI informant, that might have served the movie better had the audience been aware from the beginning.
This kid, Richard Wershe Jr., ended up being arrested and sentenced to life in prison for possessing eight kilograms of cocaine under a controversial Michigan drug policy, the so-called 650-lifer law. He was only 17 — a minor — and, until recently, was still behind bars. This isn’t the story that’s told in director Yann Demange’s film, but it is context that would have helped frame the whole endeavor and perhaps make us care a little more about Rick from the beginning.
As it is, this movie is all about how he ended up there. Rick, played by newcomer Richie Merritt, is the son of a smart and charismatic but down on his luck lower class dad/hustler, Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey, sporting a big mustache and long, combed-back hair), who’s trying to advance their station in life by re-selling modified AK-47s to local drug lords in east Detroit. Rick’s mom left them, and his sister, Dawn (Bel Powley) is on the verge of becoming a full-blown junkie.
The film starts out in 1984 when Rick is 14, and shows how this soft-spoken boy with a tough guy demeanor gets so easily swept up in and seduced by the glamour of the drug scene, the parties, the access, the girls and, of course, the money. It’s right in the thick of the war on drugs and “Just Say No” proselytizing.
Two FBI agents (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) pay Richard Sr. a visit one day, trying to get him to give some info about the people he sells guns to. He declines, but Rick Jr. jumps in to tell them a little. And in no time at all, he’s a full on informant, playing a double game with some of the city’s most powerful dealers, like Lil’ Man (Jonathan Majors), and making money on his own.
There are some real fun scenes, especially at the beginning, as we are introduced to the Wershe family including grandma Verna (Piper Laurie) and grandpa Roman (Bruce Dern) next door. As in most Hollywood films about blue collar people, this family is loud and brash and a little unwashed, but lovable nonetheless (it’s not exactly a surprise that Darren Aronofsky is a producer. Aesthetically, “White Boy Rick” is a spiritual sister to “The Fighter”).
Demange gives a real sense of place and time in “White Boy Rick,” from the homes and the cars to the clubs and the glorious neon “Skate & Roll” sign outside one of their regular gathering spots. The snow even looks real (most of the time).
Merritt is an interesting find and as a first-time actor is solid enough, although I’m not entirely sure this novelty adds anything particularly special to the movie, especially when McConaughey is next to him giving a whole performance. McConaughey is so good and emotionally affecting as Richard Sr., in both vulnerable and tough moments, that it might even catch you off guard.
The film overstays its welcome, especially in the slow-going third act, and fails to really develop some of the essential characters outside of the Wershe family (although there is a really wonderful scene-stealing child actor who comes along late in the game who brings the movie back to life for a bit).
Overall, it is a bewildering story of the callousness of the adults who helped encourage Rick to get into this position (the betrayals will make your blood boil), and an indictment of how U.S. laws can tend to hurt the most vulnerable classes. It also doesn’t take itself too deadly seriously, which is maybe the best thing to happen to this Scorsese-adjacent genre in a while.
“White Boy Rick,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity.” Running time: 110 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.