Reel Talk: ‘White Boy Rick’

September 15, 2018

“White Boy Rick” isn’t another “American Hustle” as promised in the trailers, but it is a movie based on the unlikely true story of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), a drug-trafficking teen who got his start as an informant-drug dealer for the FBI in the mid-1980s.

Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller co-wrote this crazy story with Yann Demange in the director’s chair, starring Matthew McConaughey, Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern.

It’s Detroit, 1984, and the city is suffering from every economic woe possible. Gangs and drug violence are just the tip of the iceberg in this decaying city run by corrupt politicians. Rick Sr. (McConaughey) is a gun dealer, using his shady ways to connect with and sell his wares, as he and his 15-year-old son bond over these illicit transactions.

Mom is AWOL, and Dawn (Bel Powley), Rick Jr.’s sister, is a drug addict. This dysfunctional family with the grandparents living next door, turning a blind eye to the illegal activity of their son and grandkids, is watched by the FBI, threatening Rick Sr.’s livelihood. The FBI, taking Rick Jr. under its wing, makes financial promises and plunges this minor into the very dangerous world of drug trafficking.

The film portrays each member of this family in a sadly layered way, all of them wanting to escape their current life but lacking the skills and education to do so. Rick Sr. wants to own a video store and to have the idyllic traditional family where he takes his happy children out for ice cream cones. And Rick Jr. wants to save his sister from imminent death by overdose.

There’s a sense of love in these people, but their situation and circumstance are much more powerful than love can overcome. In many ways, this film gives those of us who are more fortunate a possible glimpse into why we have social problems and violence in our communities today.

As the story of “White Boy Rick” unfolds, it elicits an incredulous response, thinking that this minor was not just used by the FBI but cultivated and trained to become a profitable dealer. Surprisingly, there really is no good guy and bad guy in this film; it’s about class differences, race and what side of the law you’re representing.

Rick Jr. gets in deeper and deeper, shaping his friendships with gang leaders, while his father warns him about the consequences, always hanging on to his video store dream and a future of a happy family.

Rick Jr. might have the connections and street smarts to complete the deals, but his heart of gold, paired with his reasoning difficulties, gets in the way. While he’s fiercely loyal to Boo (RJ Cyler, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), his best friend, he eventually learns where the lines of loyalty are drawn.

McConaughey becomes this tragic father figure, demonstrating an acting range as varied as Lady Gaga’s voice. In one film, he shows us he can be the man to make women swoon, and in “White Boy Rick,” he becomes the weathered dad who’s uneducated, unsophisticated and from the wrong side of the tracks.

His portrayal of Rick Sr. is a heartbreaking one, as he endears us to him even as he makes poor life and parenting decisions. His character has a tarnished heart of gold, and they’re living in a no-win kind of world.

As talented as McConaughey is, new-comer Merritt steals the show as the boy who can make no right decisions. His speech, affect and body language are what gives this character authentication as we believe his every word, even when we might need closed captioning to interpret.

There’s a sparkle in his eyes with an innocence, reminding us that his character is just a boy who has been exposed to more than any adult ever should be, let alone a child. It’s a breakout role for Merritt, as he gives the performance of a seasoned actor.

Dern and Piper Laurie give us reason to laugh in these dire family situations, lightening the mood for just a moment through sarcasm and stereotypical elderly behavior. McConaughey’s reaction to his parents is priceless and reminds us that we are all the same when it comes to how we respond to our parents’ rules, no matter our age or our backgrounds.

Cyler has a natural ease in front of the camera, and pairing him with Merritt is magic. It’s surprising Cyler hasn’t had more major roles as he commands attention in the most unassuming way. Rounding out the cast is Leigh as an FBI agent, and while this might not be a stretch for her, she creates a tough and sometimes heartless character that frustrates you as a viewer, watching the injustices gather momentum.

The setting and gritty feel to the film bring you back to the ’80s and transport you to the wrong side of town. Filmed in Detroit and Cleveland, the film captures the chill and deterioration of a community.

The end of the film is the most pivotal, as we learn what happened to Ricky Sr. Stay for the credits as we hear from the actual man, learning and prodding us to think more about prison sentencing and reform.

3½ out of 4 stars.

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