There are enough worthwhile things in White Boy Rick that you could almost convince yourself it’s a good movie. Its setting of snowy, blighted Detroit in the 1980s is immersive and believable, and its large cast of colorful characters feels authentic.
Which makes sense—White Boy Rick is the true story of Rick Wershe Jr., a Detroit teenager who slung crack, sold guns, and became an informant for the FBI before he was old enough to vote. He’s played by a refreshingly unglamorous newcomer named Richie Merritt, who mostly does okay for someone who’s never been in a movie before (let alone had the lead role in a sprawling crime epic).
In the end, he’s outmatched by Matthew McConaughey, who’s really fucking good—and tastefully restrained—as Wershe’s father, and Bel Powley (Diary of a Teenage Girl) as his junkie sister Dawn.
They’re all let down, however, by a script that can’t quite pull off the thrills of its requisite kingpin-on-the-rise adrenaline bumps, nor move you to tears with its bleak family tragedy.
White Boy Rick has that all-too-common problem of feeling simultaneously overlong and like big chunks are missing. Indeed, there are clips in the trailers and TV spots that I don’t remember seeing in the movie—like a Wolf of Wall Street–esque bikini party on a yacht—and there are roles filled by big names like Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and Eddie Marsan that amount to little more than walk-ons.
But even with all of the narrative focus on Rick, we never really get to know this kid. At times, the movie wants us to think he’s a clever mastermind who’s three steps ahead of everyone, while other sequences position him as a clueless pawn in a larger game.
He doesn’t seem especially conflicted about his dual existence as a criminal and a snitch, and Merritt can’t quite pull off the heavy emotional stuff, such as becoming a young father or watching his sister succumb to heroin. So director Yann Demange relies on a score by Max Richter, whose stirringly sentimental string laments feel wildly out of place.
This is the sort of speculation that doesn’t do either reviewers or moviegoers any good, but one has to suspect that White Boy Rick was a much longer movie that got whittled down to less than two hours. In fact, I wonder if it could’ve worked better as a 10-hour TV series that explored the Detroit drug underworld of the 1980s as well as the shady tactics of the FBI, while also giving all of the family stuff plenty of space.
As a movie, it feels both abrupt and overextended—the story of Rick Wershe Jr.'s rise and fall is certainly capable of punching you in the gut, but White Boy Rick is barely a glancing blow.