D: Yann Demange / 111m
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie
Detroit, 1984. Richard Wershe (McConaughey) and his fourteen year old son, Rick (Merritt), are a staple at gun shows. Richard purchases guns that he then re-sells on the street, but when he modifies a couple of rifles, Rick has the idea to sell them to a local drug dealer, Johnny ‘Lil Man’ Curry (Majors). Later, he’s approached by two FBI agents, Snyder (Leigh) and Byrd (Cochrane); they make it known that one of the modified rifles was used to kill a man.Using this as a means to persuade him, Snyder and Byrd get Rick to start making drug buys as a way of infiltrating Lil Man’s operation. Once on the inside, Rick does his best to keep things from his father, while learning the tricks of the trade – tricks that come in handy when Lil Man and his crew are arrested and Rick decides that he needs a way to make money for himself, his father and sister, Dawn (Powley), and his infant son. Soon he’s in a similar position to the one that Lil Man had, but inevitably there are consequences…
A story that would stretch credulity if it hadn’t really happened, Rick Wershe’s involvement with the FBI and his subsequent life of crime should be a movie slam dunk, the equivalent of a football striker faced with an open goal (to mix sports metaphors). And while White Boy Rick benefits from two detailed and persuasive performances from McConaughey and Merritt (making his movie debut), the screenplay by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller lacks cohesion and a clear through line – though it does try its best. Rick’s story has to vie with several others, and it’s this approach that stops the movie from being as compelling as it should be. Alongside Rick’s fall from grace, the narrative momentum stops from time to time to catch up with Dawn’s on-going drug addiction and Rick’s efforts to help her (the script never quite grasps the irony of a drug dealer trying to get someone off of drugs), and Rick’s continuing liking for Lil Man’s wife, Cathy (Paige), whom he gets into bed with in more ways than one. These and other secondary storylines hamper the flow of the movie, and with its jumping from year to successive year between 1984 and 1987, the episodic nature of the material means that the cast have to work extra hard to keep it all afloat.
In the end, some of the background details have more resonance and relevance than expected, as with the deprived lower middle class neighbourhood that the Wershes live in offering a powerful reason for Rick’s turning to drug dealing as a way out. Looking out for his family is another, and taking advantage of what he’s learnt through working for the FBI allows Rick to be successful in his chosen field (more irony that the script doesn’t explore). But Rick is also a mixture of brains and naïveté, enjoying the rewards of drug dealing while ignoring the object lesson given by Lil Man’s arrest and incarceration: the FBI will always get you in the end (and even if you’ve been an informant for them). Merritt is completely convincing as Rick, cocky and unfazed by anything and everything at fourteen, more mature and focused but still easily outwitted at seventeen, and with that sense of invincibility that every teenager has. He’s matched by McConaughey, his beaten down father still hanging onto dreams of success, even if they’re modest dreams, and always looking to be the best role model for his children that he can be. Make no mistake, both father and son are flawed characters, with a penchant for moral compromise when it can benefit them both, but the bond between them gives the movie an emotional component that is missing elsewhere. Now, if the movie had focused on their relationship to the exclusion of everything else…
Rating: 6/10 – good performances all round and solid direction from Demange aren’t enough to stop the viewer from realising that White Boy Rick is not exactly involving, and that even though the majority of it is true, it’s not always as interesting as its screenplay tries to make out; with a smattering of laughs, and moments of sudden violence to leaven the evenness of the material, this is a movie that tries hard in some places, unconvincingly in others, and which often feels the strain of the effort it’s making.