Film Review: White Boy Rick

Yann Demange tells the true story of a young Detroit convict with the same thrilling panache that informed his debut, '’71.' Despite certain structural gaffes, 'White Boy Rick' observantly portrays a family stuck in a cycle of despair.
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Back in 2014, director Yann Demange made a searing debut with his Belfast-set IRA thriller ’71, following a young soldier caught in the crossfire in the year before Bloody Sunday. His sophomore feature White Boy Rick, which premiered at the 45th Telluride Film Festival over the weekend, boasts a similar tautness in telling the true and tragic story of a 14-year-old Detroit boy’s criminal pursuits in the 1980s.

The film centers on Richard Wershe, Jr., who, along with his family, lived the anti-American Dream during an era of the overblown nationwide war on drugs and the widely publicized “Just Say No” campaign. Despite his young age, Rick Jr. was lured by the FBI to work for them as an informant. Three years later, in 1987, he was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment for cocaine possession, the FBI leaving him in the hands of an unsympathetic judge. To this day, Rick is still serving his prison sentence—title cards in the end, accompanied by Rick’s own voice, inform us that the year 2018 is when he would finally be paroled after having served 30+ years behind bars.

What leads to Rick Jr.’s sentencing is a complicated tale of people with no good options habitually making bad decisions despite their grand aspirations. The script, co-written by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller, for the most part does justice to the complex dynamics at play, allowing Demange to paint a vivid, true-to-the-era portrait of the crime-infused Detroit streets. Terrific newcomer Richie Merritt plays Rick Jr., a physically demanding part channeling the young criminals of GoodFellas, with commendable confidence—he matures in his acting as his character is put through the wringer of poverty and backstabbing, also finding himself in a brief but life-changing romance.

Quickly earning the nickname “White Boy Rick,” Rick lives in his predominantly black community with his loving, well-meaning but by all accounts ne’er-do-well father Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey, perfectly cast) and his drug-addict sister Dawn (Bel Powley, one of the most exciting young actors working today). Grumpy grandfather Roman (Bruce Dern, comic relief straight out of Nebraska) provides frequent teasing. Failed by the system as well as by his gun-loving family—Rick Sr. frequents gun shows in a world where shootings regularly occur—Rick Jr. falls into the hands of manipulative FBI officers played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane.

Of course, Rick Jr. isn’t entirely blame-free from accepting their dicey proposition. White Boy Rick works largely thanks to this awareness. Demange dissects the story from a tricky perspective, acknowledging that Rick Jr.'s story is made up of both knowingly irresponsible acts and the unstoppable cycle of crime fueled by desperation. Demange and cinematographer Tat Racliffe adeptly depict the tightknit, street-smart neighborhoods of a tarnished Detroit. Similarly, Amy Westcott’s costuming, especially intricately designed for the background actors, brings the flamboyance of the era to life without falling into the trap of overzealous nostalgia. But White Boy Rick's treatment of Dawn, whom father and son rescue from near-fatal addiction, leaves much to be desired. She sometimes feels like an afterthought. Similarly, the surprising turn of events that reveals Rick Jr.’s newborn baby unfolds haphazardly and is handled in a cutesy way. But despite its structural hiccups, Demange’s film still manages to highlight the humanity of a family and community that fights to survive their no-win circumstances and aspire to pass on something hopeful to their descendants.