White Boy Rick is the blandest version of a crazy story
Not every great story makes for a great movie. Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe, Jr. has certainly lived a more interesting life than most of us could ever even imagine, but that doesn’t translate into a compelling film. A white, lower-class 14-year-old from Detroit who became the youngest ever FBI informant and then a major cocaine dealer certainly sounds compelling. And maybe there is a better script based on his life out there, but that is not White Boy Rick. So the filmmakers attempt to make White Boy Rick equal parts family drama and crime story. Sadly, neither is effective.
We meet Rick (Richie Merritt) and his dad (Matthew McConaughey) at a gun show, running a hustle on a dealer there. We then get a glimpse of Rick’s family life in a poor area of Detroit. His older sister, Dawn (Bel Powley) runs away to move in with her drug-pushing boyfriend, while their grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) live across the street.
After Rick sells those guns to a local gang, the FBI (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cocharane) shows up and tries to get more information from Rick Sr., who refuses to talk. The younger Rick is able to provide a little information, and the agents later pick him up off the street and pressure him into helping them by saying it is the only way they will leave his dad alone for the illegal gun sales.
At this point, you might think that the film will take a step back and question the actions of the FBI agents recruiting a 14-year-old to buy crack cocaine. But it never does. The film never engages with the aspects of this story that are actually notable in the first place. None of the characters react to the choices that Rick makes until much later in the film, and by then it is too little too late. It also doesn’t help that Rick remains an enigma for most of the film. I get it, he’s a quiet kid who doesn’t talk a lot. But we get zero insight into his motivations. Sometimes it seems like he is doing it all for his dad, or his sister, and other times it just seems like he’s doing it because he has nothing better to do. Any of these are interesting motivations, but the central character of the film feels more like an empty shell than he does a fully realized person.
White Boy Rick is exactly the kind of “based on a true story” film that goes through what actually happened without any regard for actual storytelling, thematics, or character. More historical reenactment than trying to bring any sort of reflection or introspection. Beyond his age, it seems the most special thing about Rick is the fact that he’s white, but even that barely gets more than a mention.
The performances on the whole are fine, though no one is asked to do much. Jennifer Jason Leigh is always a welcome presence, and Bruce Dern reprises his role as the senile comic relief from a few other films. And Matthew McConaughey is actually pretty distracting. He seems to work best when he is playing the single oddball character, or a character as weird as the world around him. But here he’s just a Dad who always seems to have an agenda. And with his mullet and overplayed accent, he took me out of the film every time.
White Boy Rick opens in Philly theaters today.