By 14, Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) could tell a real Russian Kalashnikov assault rifle from an AK-47 knock-off, courtesy of his firearms-hustling dad, Richie Sr. (Matthew McConaughey). At that age, he also hung with the African-American gangs who ran the drug trade in Detroit in 1984, earning a reputation and a nickname. By 15, he’d been recruited by two feds (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane) and a local narcotics cop (Brian Tyree Henry, now officially costarring in every fourth movie being released this year) to do “buys” for them, so they could try to build a case and nab the big fish running things. So Rick seems legit, they teach him how to make crack. By 16, Rick would become a dad, get shot in the stomach, help send his former running partners to prison and go into the pushing-heavy-weight business along with his dad. And by 17, the kid with the fat roll and a license plate that read “Snow-Man” would inadvertently help put a number of corrupt cops away and, after being sold down the river by the FBI, be sentenced to life in prison himself.
So what did you do in your teenage years?
Wershe’s journey from ambitious young American to convicted-felon cautionary tale is the sort of true story that’s catnip to movie producers, so it was inevitable we’d eventually get an adaptation of his memoir — especially if it’s a book blessed with the pulp-perfect subtitle “My Life as an Undercover Teenage Informant for the F.B.I.” You could do a lot worse than getting a director like Yann Demange, whose British-soldier-in-Belfast thriller ’71 (2014) is a textbook example of pure forward-momentum filmmaking, to call the shots. The same goes for casting the newcomer Merritt as Rick Jr., a young actor who somehow makes the most of a role that requires him to be a blank slate cursed with a caterpillar-peachfuzz mustache and a mushroom mop of hair. His constant expressionlessness is in character, of course; the kid has to be the coolest cat in the room or die tryin’. Plus, given that McConaughey is in mulleted, maxi-sleazoid mode and often looks like he’s licking his chops over some highly chewable scenery, the kid kind of needs to balance out the equation a tad.
You could also do better than just presenting a series of incidents, true or otherwise, and not really connecting them into a bigger-picture whole, however … which is what White Boy Rick feels like for most of its running time. Its early scenes, in which the two Ricks battle it out with the boy’s junkie sister Dawn (Bel Powley) and their cantankerous grandfather (Bruce Dern), crackle with dynamic familial chaos, and when Demange is called on to give the period stuff a sense of either bombed-out, urban-blight desperation or a giddy, come-on-party-people excessiveness, he can deliver good isolated moments. (There’s a shot of a pimped-out bigwig Eddie Marsan, dancing the wop to the break from “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” by Bob James, that is unforgettable and priceless.)
And while it doesn’t fall prey to grabbing the GoodFellas brass ring and turning into just another story of crime and irony, the film isn’t saying much about the Reagan-era War on Drugs, the hypocrisy that characterized it or the notion that crack was really cocaine cut with pure capitalism that you have not heard before. Takeaways are minimal here, other than Rick Jr. got burned bad and 1980’s Rock City got burned worse. If the father-son drama running parallel to the rise-and-fall-with-detours narrative fares better, it’s mostly because Merritt and McConaughey work well off each other. The latter in particular gets a few deep scenes with his screen daughter Powley as well.
But the potential to use Wershe’s story to tell a larger one about the environment that made him and locked him up is M.I.A. “America is the only country where a man can hot-wire his brains to his balls and make shit happen,” Rick Sr. tells his offspring at one point. White Boy Rick has both a mind and a pair of cojones on it — occasionally it even wears its heart on its rayon sleeve. They rarely seem juiced up or in sync enough to make a lot of substantial shit happen.