white boy rick review

White Boy Rick has a potentially great story to tell, but decides to take a far too familiar approach. The end result is a by-the-numbers true crime film the likes of which we’ve seen dozens of times before.

“In 1980s Detroit, Ricky Wershe Jr. was a Street Hustler, FBI Informant and Drug Kingpin – all before he turned 16.” So says the tagline for White Boy Rick, the new drama directed by Yann Demange, based on a true story. What a set up! Must make for a fascinating film, right?

Well, not really. White Boy Rick travels down the well-worn path of a million other true crime sagas before it. If you’ve seen a crime saga made in the last 50 years, you’ve more or less seen White Boy Rick. The film is seemingly well-aware of this, as it features a moment where characters sit around watching Serpico.

The Serpico reference is apt, because like Frank Serpico, Ricky Wershe (newcomer Richie Merritt) is working under cover. And like Serpico, he puts himself in grave danger through his actions.

As White Boy Rick kicks off, Ricky is just a small-time hustler, helping sell guns for his small-time hustler father, Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey). The Wershe’s live in poverty, but Richard Sr. dreams of making enough money to provide his kids a better life. His kids – Ricky and strung-out sister Dawn (Bel Powley) – aren’t exactly holding their breath waiting for this to happen.

Rick works his way into the exclusively black criminal underworld in his Detroit neighborhood – an act that catches the attention of an two FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane). They want to use Rick as an informant, and to establish his street cred, they instruct him to start buying, and eventually selling, crack cocaine.

From here, things spiral out of control very fast. Ricky’s criminal connections grow suspicious of him, and the FBI agents hang him out to dry. As if that weren’t bad enough, he soon learns he’s fathered a child. What’s a young enterprising criminal to do but try to launch a drug empire?

The script, by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller, flirts with social issues, particularly in a scene where Ricky’s criminal boss talks about “black jail time vs. white jail time.” But White Boy Rick never fully commits to this, content instead to focus solely on Ricky and his immediate family. We’re meant to have sympathy for Ricky, and indeed, he was clearly dealt a bad hand in life. But he was also selling a deadly substance for personal gain, all while seeing what that substance was doing to his own sister.

While the story doesn’t break new ground, White Boy Rick benefits from a slick production and a winning cast. Demange’s direction is crisp and focused, and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe does a fantastic job conveying the cold, bleak, rainy weather of Detroit. This is all backed-up by Max Richter melancholy yet exhilarating score.

Merritt is wonderful as Ricky, playing the character as cocky but also naive. He’s not dumb, he just has no idea how in over his head he is, and Merritt does a fantastic job conveying that. McConaughey is the real stand-out, playing Ricky’s well-meaning father. McConaughey brings a much-needed warmth to the proceedings – a scene where he cradles his new grandson with a big grin on his face is touching.

These fine performances make one want to enjoy White Boy Rick, but too much else is working against it. The script is loaded with clunky, on-the-nose lines – “You’re not a loser, you just got lost!” Ricky tells Dawn at one point; “You’d be amazed at how easy it is to take a wrong turn on a short journey,” Richard Sr. says to Ricky later – and the film is ultimately front loaded. The bulk of the action happens early, to the point where I thought the film was about to end – only to learn there was still a full hour left. It all eventually leads to an ending that finds Ricky up against a justice system willing to give him the maximum sentence for a non-violent crime.

It’s a shame this material comes at the tail-end of the film. There’s a great story buried – the story of a young man being railroaded by bureaucracy. That’s far more interesting, and different, than the standard true crime flick White Boy Rick is trying to be.  

/Film rating: 6 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net