Incredible True Story
Set in the bombed-out husk of 1980’s Detroit, White Boy Rick tells the rather incredible true story of Rick Wershe, Jr., a down-and-out kid who became the youngest ever FBI informant at the tender young age of 14. While undoubtedly an interesting little factoid, the detail of Rick’s young age isn’t really as important to the story as the film’s billing tries to have us believe. After all, isn’t a story about anyone who turns informant against some really, really bad guys -- regardless of age -- story enough? In White Boy Rick it is.
The film comes across as a well-executed but improbable father-son tale with danger, crime, betrayal, and lost innocence running through its veins. Yes, Rick is just a kid, but more importantly he is a sympathetic victim of the inner-city decay and the nation’s zero tolerance policy against drugs during the ‘80s.
The story centers on the Wershe family, father Rick, Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), son Ricky (Richie Merritt), and sister Dawn (Bel Powley), who live in Detroit’s working-class east side where jobs are scarce and infrastructure has imploded following the fall of the American auto industry. The depraved drug subculture and criminal underworld thrive in this shell of a city that becomes a character as big as any of the film’s human characters.
But father Rick Sr. is a survivor, always thinking that his next deal will finally put his family ahead. He buys and sells guns out of the trunk of his car but also harbors the dream of one day opening a chain of video stores. See, he truly wants the best for his family, but struggles to stop the cycle of generational poverty running rampant in this part of the country. When asked why he didn’t just move the family out of the city when the family’s matriarch abandoned them, Rick tells his son, “The lion don’t leave the Serengeti. And besides, this is going to be our year. I can feel it.”
Although this is Ricky’s story, the importance of Rick Sr.’s role as the glue that binds it all together is also tantamount to everything working as well as it does. And McConaughey’s performance here is a big one. He’s like any other father, just trying to do what’s best for his family, but who is ill-equipped, at best, to do so. Though it could have so easily tipped over into a cartoonish caricature, McConaughey’s performance remains grounded in real emotion. And while we hope we would never make the same decisions he does, we understand them.
Growing up in his father’s footsteps, wet-behind-the-ears Ricky quickly learns his Dad’s gun business. But it is his familiarity with the major players in his neighborhood’s drug culture that eventually draws the attention of the FBI, depicted by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, who turn the screws on young Ricky to become a confidential undercover informant. Though Ricky isn’t buying or selling drugs at the time, his FBI informants teach him the ins and outs of how to buy and sell drugs and otherwise pass himself off as legit, despite his obvious “whiteness” in the predominantly African-American neighborhood. Remember this for later: the Feds taught Ricky how to be a drug dealer.
It is not long before White Boy Rick (dubbed so by his black friends) begins to excel at his new profession. As the assignments given him by the FBI continue to escalate and become more and dangerous, Ricky’s confidence equally swells. Not sure if it’s just a lucky first shot or if this kid really has something, but Merritt does a fantastic job playing both sides of the same coin. We believe in his newfound kingpin swagger as he moves up the criminal ladder, while also seeing the innocence of a fresh-faced young kid caught up in a game he’s both thrilled by and scared of. His charismatic attraction with McConaughey is a large part of why the film works as well as it does -- and kudos to director Yann Demange (’71) for recognizing what he had and nurturing their chemistry.
As expected, the Wershe empire eventually crumbles leaving Ricky in jail to serve a mandatory life sentence even though it was the FBI who initially supplied the drugs and taught him how to deal. Many of the events that lead to Ricky’s downfall play off-screen as does much of the behind-the-scenes stuff that allows the cops to build their case. We get only a short montage of how the cocaine is processed, and even less of how Ricky built his criminal empire and eventual fortune. But that’s not really the story being told here by screenwriters Andy Weiss and Logan Miller. There are many more films out there that do that part better.
Instead, this is a coming-of-age story with a father and son relationship at its core. And as such, it’s a very solid representative of the genre and a good film on its own right -- sad, heartfelt, funny, entertaining, and as dangerous as a box of dynamite. In addition, White Boy Rick might feature the best ever use of Funkadelic’s "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" in film.
(Released by Columbia Pictures Corp. and rated “R” for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.