White Boy Rick recounts the incredible story of Ricky Wershe Jr., who went from street hustling with his dad to an FBI informant then drug kingpin, and it all ends in a Michigan prison with a life sentence. Rick’s story is so incredible, in part, because all of that took place before he turned 17. There have been countless films telling the stories of drug kingpins and FBI informants but not many have featured a teenager. The fact that this film is based on a true story aids to how incredible all of it is and it lends to the saying, truth is stranger than fiction. Writers Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller were tasked with putting Rick’s story together on the page and director, Yann Demange, had to bring it to life. As sensational as the story is, all of the trappings of films based on true stories are there, properly curating the story and major events of his story. Condensing it to a reasonable runtime and maintaining the proper balance of truth and entertainment. For the most part all of the traps were avoided and White Boy Rick ending up being a great film.
As a film White Boy Rick excelled in a lot of areas, none greater than casting. There is a good combination of well established and lesser known talents, each of which give compelling performances that help the film excel. Matthew McConaughey is the most notable of the cast and is top billed for good reason. McConaughey gives a great performance as Richard Wershe Sr., White Boy Rick’s dad. While McConaughey appeared to go pretty method, it’s a rather understated performance. The film doesn’t center around him and his character is a bit slow to develop, but there is a full arc to Richard Wershe Sr. That arc is made incredibly compelling by McConaughey. You quickly write this character off as a bit of an antagonist but by the end of the film he appears to be a victim of circumstance, bad choices and the system. Your heart breaks for him and McConaughey’s subtle but still powerful performance brings all of that out.
Bel Powley gave an incredible performance as Dawn Wershe, Rick’s sister. The addict sibling role can be a tough one because depending on how the film plays out there may not be enough room for the performance to land. While Powley didn’t get as much time as I would have liked, the time she had was incredibly impactful. Much like McConaughey her character was easy to write off but ended up developing beautifully. Her transformation from addict to care giver landed very well for me, as did her relationship with Rick. It was a sweet brother/sister relationship that resonated and helped make her character matter even when she wasn’t on screen. I wasn’t familiar with Powley before this film but I am certainly a fan after. The samecan be said for White Boy Rick, played by Richie Merritt. He has no previous acting credits. This has become a bit of an understated trend over the past few years. Films like American Honey and The Florida Project have used non actors in the lead role to their success. Merritt’s performance wasn’t as good as those performances; it did not detract much from the film. He did well to carry the parts of the film he needed to. The supporting cast carried the rest of the time the film.
Rounding out the supporting cast is a variety of very interesting names, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, RJ Cyler and Bruce Dern. Each of these performers had relatively small roles but did a good job with what they were given. Jennifer Jason Leigh is always solid when she’s on screen and did well again here. Henry and Cyler were the two I was most excited to see and they represented themselves well. Cyler was especially good for me. He has had an interesting run and a few performances that didn’t seem to speak to his talent (Power Rangers and Sierra Burgess is a Loser). This time we get to see what he is capable of and I was impressed. He is a charismatic performer that is naturally funny and he did a good job of brightening up the film when he was on screen. Henry might be one of the more underrated actors in all of Hollywood. People seem to slowly turning the corner on him because of his work on Atlanta. He is a great actor that is underutilized here but nonetheless it was good to see him.
The cast in White Boy Rick was so important and stuck out so much because it stumbled out of the blocks a bit. It was missing something to tie all of the scenes together and felt disjointed. Part of that feeling may have come from the pacing, which was a bit odd for me at first because it was moving so fast through the story. What was really missing were the emotional stakes. There wasn’t much to grab onto early on but that turned around rather rapidly in the second half of the film. It found its voice in that second half and when it did the film took off. This is around the time when several different plot points started to really come together. Rick’s relationships with his dad and sister started to come into focus around this time. As did Richard Wershe Sr.’s relationship with his daughter Dawn. There is a powerful moment as Wershe Sr. tries to carry her out of a crack house that is equal parts heart breaking and incredible. There are several other emotional plot points that start to take shape around this time and function as the spine of the film, Boy Rick is a bit of a slow burn that really pays off in the end.
As emotional as this story is at times, there is another element that makes the film a bit complicated. White Boy Rick has a clear message about nonviolent crimes and how we as country have handled them. Rick getting a life sentences for having drugs with the intent to sell is appalling and hits you in a way that really makes you think. That was brought across very well and was the part of the film that I can’t stop thinking about. The film also did a great job of showing the impact of drugs on communities, families and people. Whether it was a run down, near dystopian looking Detroit, how the Curry family was dismantled (especially Boo) or how Dawn almost lost her life to her addiction, there were very real and impactful depictions. Most crime stories like this focus more on the rise of the kingpin and how that particular family is impacted. We get a bit of that here but we also get to see all of these other perspectives that really help to deliver a powerful message.
The part of all of this that gets a bit complicated starts with Rick Wershe Jr. He’s not exactly a great martyr. The cops and the government did him wrong and maybe he was a product of his environment or even circumstance but it is hard to root for him because he was committing crimes. He’s also hard to root for because all of the black people that were his friends were done wrong by him and are pretty much forgotten about in this film. We are meant to feel sympathetic towards Rick for getting screwed over by the system but the black people that are getting screwed by the system (and Rick) don’t get that same sympathy. This makes the film a bit tougher to digest but doesn’t kill the message because there was a lot of good messaging alongside this. The drug conversation is a nuanced and messy conversation that is as clear cut as most would like it to be. It’s hard to talk about because the people involved aren’t perfect martyrs and the system is incredibly flawed. White Boy Rick works because it doesn’t shy away from any of that. While my feelings were complicated by some of what was going on, that made the effectiveness of the film even stronger. It is a really good movie that will drive you to think about some things that you might not have thought about before. At the least it is a solid crime story with some really strong performances. Either way it is worth the watch.
4 out of 5 stars
Director: Yann Demange Writers: Andy Weiss, Logan Miller & Noah Miller Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, RJ Cyler & Bruce Dern Release Date: September 14th Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour and 51 minutes