Jeanne: Who in their right mind recruits a 14-year-old boy — no matter how street smart he may be — to become an informant in a dangerous drug gang? WHITE BOY RICK is the true story of Rick Wershe, Jr. (newcomer Richie Merritt), the kid the FBI turns into a mole.
Unable to escape the decimated landscape of East Detroit after the 1967 race riot, Richard Wershe, Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) maintains his modest home across the street from his parents, Ray (Bruce Dern) and Verna (Piper Laurie). His wife long gone, Richard Sr. has been trying desperately to keep his small family, Rick and his older sister, Dawn (Bel Powley), together.
Rick and his father have a close relationship, as opposed to Dawn and Richard Sr. A junkie hooked on crack, she jumps at the first opportunity to get out of her father’s house. Leaving Rick behind to fend for himself with their father, Richard Sr. is caught committing a crime selling off his cadre of guns. Rick agrees to cooperate with two FBI agents, Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane), to work undercover as an informant — the youngest in history. His task is to infiltrate the Curry Crew, led by Johnny “Lil Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors), who has ties to Detroitmayor Coleman Young.
Keep in mind, this is a true story. Yikes! It’s his acceptance into this gang which earns him the moniker White Boy Rick, given to him by his best friend, Rudell “Boo” Curry (RJ Cyler), Johnny’s youngest brother. For once in his short life, things are going well for Rick. He and his father even manage to rescue Dawn and clean her up. Then the feds raid the Curry Crew’s hangout and ship everyone, except Rick, off to prison.
Adrift and out of money, Rick convinces Richard to help him start dealing drugs, filling the void left by Curry. Unfortunately, it’s not long until Rick is busted and he and his father learn a very hard lesson about the realities of the police, politicians and broken promises.
There is no doubt that WHITE BOY RICK is grim in its depiction of the consequences facing the poor and disenfranchised in this country. As much as Richard Sr. tries to convince Rick that they can still attain the American Dream, it slips through their fingers at every turn.
When Rick is begging his father to help him sell drugs so they can finally change their lives, it’s heartbreaking because we know the odds of them not being caught are insurmountable. Rick becomes Michigan’s longest-serving non-violent juvenile drug offender — spending 29 years in prison.
McConaughey was the first to sign on to star in WHITE BOY RICK. He had seen director Yann Demange’s film ’71 and wanted to work with him. I found his performance as Richard Sr. every bit as riveting as his portrayal in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB for which he won his Oscar.
I was particularly struck by Richard’s devotion to his children, specifically Rick. At one point, after Rick has been shot by one of Curry’s thugs, he waits in his old Chevy holding a gun. He intends to shoot and kill Lil Man, but as the scene unfolds, it’s clear he hasn’t got the nerve. A sad realization washes over Richard — and McConaughey is spellbinding in that moment.
Demange instituted a nationwide search to find a young man to play Rick. Recommended by his high school principal, Merritt surpassed all others, without any acting experience. His formative years weren’t all that much different from Rick’s, thus his ability to relate. And Demange was astonished by his audition tape, commenting he didn’t look at all like he was acting. Merritt is amazingly authentic, especially in his scenes with McConaughey. Closeness between a father and son is difficult to achieve, but these two create a bond which is undeniable.
The rest of the cast is superb — but Powley is outstanding. As Dawn, her performance is so raw and gut-wrenching. When she finally cleans herself up, her sisterly love and support is paramount to Rick’s survival. She is spectacular to watch.
I’m perplexed that WHITE BOY RICK isn’t rated higher than it is on Rotten Tomatoes. It certainly isn’t the happiest movie ever, but there are a few laugh-out-loud moments. Drug dealing in East Detroit is a tough business and Demange’s cast and crew bring it to life with a gritty realism.
Opinion: See It Now!
David: We seem to be saying this a lot lately, but now there is another young actor to watch. His name is Richie Merritt, and his role as the title character in WHITE BOY RICK is his first major performance. He is truly mesmerizing. If he was intimidated playing opposite the likes of Matthew McConaughey, it doesn’t show.
Merritt portrays Richard Wershe Jr., son of Richard, Sr. (McConaughey), and brother of older sister, Dawn (Bel Powley). His turn is remarkable as the son who wants to be the savior of his family by earning money selling crack cocaine. Merritt gains the audience’s sympathy — even respect — because his character is imminently likeable, and Rick Jr’s behavior is not based on personal greed. It is a memorable portrayal.
His dad has visions in 1984 Detroit of opening a string of video stores, but that dream never materializes. Instead, Rick Sr. is in trouble with the feds for selling modified AK47s and other weaponry out of the trunk of his car.
So to assuage the local FBI agents, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, Rick goes undercover to expose drug pushers in his ‘hood, with near fatal results. All of this is based on a true story, and it is as depressing as it sounds. But French director Yann Demange and a trio of writers elevate the story into a family dynamic that is both moving and realistic.
McConaughey is his usual bombastic self, reaching his expected acting heights late in the film. This occurs when his son is found guilty of possessing drugs for sale — well over the Michigan prescribed limit of a misdemeanor — and is given a life sentence with no chance of parole. Rick Sr. argues that he didn’t murder anyone, but it falls on deaf ears, at least as far as the judge is concerned, and a jury is neither lenient nor sympathetic. Ironically, far more heinous crimes are being committed by the current U.S. administration, but this film takes place over 30 years ago when the catch phrase was “Just Say No!” to drugs.
Outside of his grandparents Ray (Bruce Dern) and Verna (Piper Laurie), the Wershes are a rare white family in the mostly African American east side ofDetroit. But Rick Jr. has a best friend in “Boo” Curry (RJ Cyler), the younger brother of the leader of the gang he infiltrates. A relationship with a classmate leads to the birth of a daughter, which becomes more poignant when Rick Jr. is visited in prison by dad, Dawn and the toddler.
Powley gave a brazenly daring performance in 2015’s THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL opposite Alexander Skarsgård and Kristin Wiig. In WHITE BOY RICK she convincingly portrays a strung-out drug addict who loves her brother, but has only disdain for her father. Her plight in this story is a sad commentary on the abuse of drugs in this country.
Some may say that Rick got what he deserved for his role in selling illegal drugs. But in retrospect, White Boy Rick’s fate — he has the notoriety of being Michigan’s longest serving non-violent drug offender — was cruel and unusual punishment. The closing credits wrap up his story in concise terms, as they do with Rick Sr. But Dawn, strangely enough, is not mentioned.