Movie review: Crime drama 'White Boy Rick' is depressing, entertaining -- and true

 
By Michael O'Sullivan
The Washington Post
Updated 9/14/2018 11:47 AM
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  • A father (Matthew McConaughey), right, and son (newcomer Richie Merritt) sell guns to drug dealers in "White Boy Rick."

    A father (Matthew McConaughey), right, and son (newcomer Richie Merritt) sell guns to drug dealers in "White Boy Rick." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

"White Boy Rick" - ★ ★

It's easy to see why someone would want to make a movie about Ricky Wershe Jr. His life story, the inspiration for the new, fact-based crime drama "White Boy Rick," has it all: drugs, sex and gunrunning, plus a main character whose neck-deep involvement in all those activities -- while still a teenager -- is both shocking and appealingly guileless.

It's a bit harder to explain why you should watch such a depressing, and at times even soul-sucking, movie.

Set in 1980s Detroit, at the height of the city's crack epidemic, "White Boy Rick" is permeated by an atmosphere of grimy hopelessness. Moments of dark humor and colorful dialogue leaven the mood, as when Ricky's father (Matthew McConaughey) describes this Wild West vision of late 20th-century urban America: It's the only place, he says, "where a man can hot-wire his brains" (and other parts) to make stuff happen.

For Ricky's old man, that translates to selling modified AK-47s, with the help of his son, to drug dealers and other shady customers -- some of whom go on to commit horrible crimes. The threat of prosecution by the FBI is used as leverage to lure Ricky (played by baby-faced newcomer Richie Merritt) to go undercover as a 14-year-old drug informant. This is where the film starts to get interesting -- if also something of a downer.

Taking its title from the nickname bestowed on the younger Wershe by some members of Detroit's black underworld, "White Boy Rick" covers a span of only three to four years. Yet within that brief window, the film charts its adolescent antihero's unlikely rise and predictable fall, from law-enforcement operative to outlaw, when agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) cut Ricky loose from the informant program. After that, he uses the skills he learned as a fake drug dealer to become a real one.

A teen (Richie Merritt) becomes an FBI informant and then a drug dealer in the fact-based "White Boy Rick."
A teen (Richie Merritt) becomes an FBI informant and then a drug dealer in the fact-based "White Boy Rick." - Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

At one point, Ricky is shot in the gut by a rival, leading to him wear a colostomy bag. French director Yann Demange doesn't flinch about showing any of this, a frankness that the filmmaker turns into a kind of perverse stylistic asset when it comes to drawing our attention to the story's most sordid details. Some of that unpleasantness concerns Ricky's sister, Dawn, a drug addict played by Bel Powley. Scenes of Dawn going through withdrawal after her father and brother rescue her from a crack den are harrowing, if also oddly touching.

At another point, Ricky -- already baby-daddy to one girlfriend (Kyanna Simone Simpson) -- gets seduced by the wife (Taylour Paige) of an incarcerated drug rival, a woman who also happens to be the niece of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.

You can't make this stuff up. And screenwriters Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller don't try, mostly hewing faithfully to the tragicomic contours of Ricky's life.

"White Boy Rick" is an engrossing-enough cautionary tale, if that's what it is. It's even an entertaining one, in an unsavory kind of way. But whether there's any deeper meaning to a story that tries only halfheartedly to say something about the fragility of family is debatable.

• • •

Starring: Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane

Directed by: Yann Demange

Other: Rated R for language, drugs, violence, sexual situations and nudity. 110 minutes

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