White Boy Rick is a fascinating character drama that doesn't quite work as a gangster film. The wardrobe, production design, and ensemble cast are exceptional in portraying crack-infested, eighties Detroit. The period setting is well done. The problem is that the criminal elements to the story are glossed over. They are highly stylized, but not substantive. The attention given to character development needed to be spread more evenly.
Richie Merritt stars as Richard Wershe Jr. In 1984 Detroit, he was a fourteen year old kid hustling guns on the street for his father (Matthew McConaughey). The Wershe family lived in a predominantly black neighborhood; riddled with drugs and violence. Rick was part of a local crew, affectionately called White Boy Rick for obvious reasons. FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane) had their sights on Rick's father, but came to realize his teenage son's value. White Boy Rick was a player, absolutely trusted by the crack-peddling gangs. As Rick is coerced into being an informant, his older sister (Bel Powley) spirals into drug addiction.
The Wershe family were dysfunctional as hell, but loved each other deeply. White Boy Rick has their interactions at its core. His father despised drug dealers, but had no compunction selling them weapons. The right to bear arms is in the constitution. He treated his son like a partner, getting Rick intricately involved in his schemes. Handing the boy firearms like pieces of candy. This lack of parental guidance set the stage for catastrophic events. Rick was truly a product of his environment.
Matthew McConaughey is tremendous in a more subdued, supporting role. French Director Yann Demange (Top Boy) never lets McConaughey go overboard. He reigns in and focuses McConaughey's talent like a chisel. British Actress Bel Powley is equally fantastic as Dawn, Ricky's crack-addicted sister. Her performance is raw, gut-wrenching. One scene in particular is very difficult to see. Richie Merritt is straight and somber throughout. He was the eye of the Wershe storm, surrounded by chaos and lawlessness. Incredibly, White Boy Rick is Richie Merritt's first foray into acting. He more than holds his own against remarkable co-stars.
White Boy Rick draws you successfully into the drug dealer environment, then switches to a helicopter view of the action. It's a total letdown. We never get to see the nuts and bolts of Ricky's criminal enterprise. The same happens with the FBI agents. They appear intermittently at odd times. I was disappointed with the final act. White Boy Rick concludes abruptly. The denouement is borderline nonexistent. This is an odd conclusion for Yann Demange. His British television series, Top Boy, had an absolutely riveting finish.
I would love to see a longer edit of White Boy Rick. The editing decisions in the climax were poorly made. The drug dealing needed much more screen time. That said, there was meat on the bone for greatness. The characters and setting were so damn good, I know there's a better film to be gleaned here. From Sony Pictures, White Boy Rick is excellent in parts, but mediocre overall.