White Boy Rick a flat rendering of true story
White Boy Rick ★★ (out of 5) Director: Yann Demange Starring: Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey, Bel Powley Running time: 1 hours, 50 min.
White Boy Rick is based on a true story, which makes it feel churlish not to like it more; it’s like I’m saying that Richard Wershe’s life as the youngest FBI informant in history isn’t interesting enough.
But I’m going to blame Andy Weiss and Noah and Logan Miller — white boys all — for a screenplay that fails to hook us with Rick’s story, and that relegates most of the kid’s black friends to little more than background characters.
First-time actor Richie Merritt was just 15 when he was cast in the role of Richard Wershe Jr., and he manages ably enough, although he is occasionally in the shadow of Matthew McConaughey, who plays his hungry, huckster dad.
We first meet the two of them at a gun show in 1984. Junior sidles up to a seller and displays knowledge beyond his years about the merchandise. At a critical moment, Dad arrives to inform the seller that this prospective buyer is underage; they get a good deal in exchange for their silence. All Wershe Sr. really wants is to open a video rental store, but before he can make that happen, the FBI, represented by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane threaten to bust him for trafficking. But they cut a deal with the kid; if he’ll do a little drug dealing in his Detroit neighbourhood and let them know where the product goes, they’ll leave his pop alone.
Rick Jr. is excited at the money he can make, and agrees to the plan. Director Yann Demange made the excellent, under-appreciated 2014 film ’71, about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but he loses his way in the streets of Detroit.
Part of the problem is the short shrift given to various subplots, including Bel Powley as Rick’s drug-addicted sister; Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as his grandparents; and a host of black actors — RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, hip hop artist YG, etc. — in thinly written, almost interchangeable roles as pushers and users.
You can Google Richard Wershe Jr. to learn the details of his life, some of which is explained in titles before the end credits roll. It’s a sad story of a young, naive and underprivileged boy used by the system for its own ends. But White Boy Rick can’t manage to capture the excitement of that life as it was unfurling, nor the sadness we feel looking back on it. The kid deserved better; he still does.
Richie Merritt stars as Richard Wershe in White Boy Rick. The movie portrays the real-life story of Wershe, who became America’s youngest informant.