As a movie, White Boy Rick
is fine as is, but with one small tweak, it could have been improved. The film is the true story of how a teenage boy in 1980s Detroit became an informant for the FBI. Young Richard "Rick" Wershe, Jr. was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17. His crime was possessing 8 kilograms of cocaine, and he was convicted under a controversial Michigan drug policy. The tragedy of the situation is that Rick was largely used and then thrown under the bus by the law that he was helping by uncovering some drug gangs and crooked cops. It was not until last year that Rick was released on parole, at the age of 47.
The thing is, we don't learn about much of this in the film until it is almost over. This is one instance where I think a flashback structure, starting the film off with Rick in prison would have been the way to go, as it not only would have helped grab our attention, but it would have helped us sympathize with young Rick right from the beginning. The story of Rick and what happened to him within the Justice System is not the focus of the film, although that probably would have served as an intriguing movie itself. Instead, we get to see his rise and fall, and the personal toll that he paid. It's an engaging story, if not a little by-the-numbers at times. And although the movie does drag from time to time, the fine performances and some genuinely powerful and anger-inducing moments held my interest throughout.
Rick is played by first-time actor Richie Merritt, and when the story kicks off in 1984, he's 14 and living with his dad, a smooth talking hustler named Richard, Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), who dreams big dreams of one day opening a video store, but until then, he sells modified AK-47s out of the trunk of his car in order to make a living. He's a single dad, doing his best to raise both of his kids. Rick looks up to and genuinely respects him, while Rick's older sister Dawn (Bel Powley) views their dad as a hopeless loser, and dreams of escaping the house. Dawn is on the verge of becoming a junkie, and while Richard, Sr. tries his best to keep his daughter in line, he can't do anything when she runs off to live with a guy.
It's well known in the local area that Richard, Sr. has been selling guns to some of the local drug gangs, and one day, a pair of FBI agents (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) stop by to pay Rick's father a visit. They want information on who he's been selling to, but he won't give the information. Rick, however, is willing to give some information, and before long, the agents make him a full-time informant infiltrating some of the most powerful gangs in Detroit. Rick is quite attracted to the drug scene, especially the lavish lifestyles and huge parties that the local dealers seem to enjoy. He gets involved in the gangs, working as a double agent, makes some friends on the inside, and even starts making some big money on the side which he stashes in a shoebox under his bed. By the time his dad catches on to what's going on, the kid has over $9,000 stashed away in his room.
White Boy Rick
eases us into the story with a certain humorous tone as we are introduced to the Wershe family. They are brash, frequently argue, and there is some fun in the early moments where Rick's grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie), who live next door to him, act exasperated over Richard, Sr.'s attempts to keep his house under control. Even when the story takes a more serious tone as Rick is pulled into the criminal underworld, the movie still keeps a sly sense of humor that shows itself from time to time. I especially liked the moment where Richard, Sr. is talking about how the family isn't doing too bad, and Rick reminds him that his daughter is a junkie and he himself is involved with violent gangs. His dad's response? He's a glass-half-full kind of guy, and chooses to look at the positives. I also admired the way that the film creates a sense of the mid-80s time period with scenes set in skating rinks, Footloose
playing at the local drive-in, and soap operas on TV. The movie even manages to create a small community vibe that gives the film a sense of realism.
If there is any fault to be found, the movie does drag a little from time to time, and some of the people in the gangs that Rick hangs out with could have been handled and developed better, especially a young woman who he ends up having a baby with. However, this is offset by just how well developed the members of the Wershe family, as well as the performances are. McConaughey, in particular, is a force of nature. Hidden behind a huge mustache and slick hair, he nonetheless commands the screen every time he comes on, and he gets some of the film's best moments. I also really admired Bel Powley as Rick's drug-addict sister. She's an actress I'm not very familiar with, but would love to see more of given her performance here. As for Richie Merritt in the title role, he shows a lot of promise, but his performance can also be a bit stiff at times, especially when he has to act alongside an old pro like McConaughey. He obviously has talent, and he sells his big scenes well enough, though. It's definitely a fine performance, considering it's his first movie, and he manages to stay afloat.
But it's the final moments of White Boy Rick
that are the most emotional and powerful, when Rick is used and betrayed by the same people who got him into this mess in the first place. I almost think a satisfying film could have been made by extending the last 20 minutes or so, and going over the details of the trial that led to his conviction. But, that's not this movie. What we have been given is effective enough, and does a good enough job of making you want to know the real story of Rick Wershe, Jr. When you hear his real voice talking in an audio interview over the darkness before the end credits roll, you really get a sense of everything he went through. It's an emotional conclusion to a film that can be a bit messy, but is well worth watching.