REVIEW: ‘White Boy Rick’ is Stirring and Heartfelt but lacks Authenticity and edge



‘White Boy Rick’ is a coming of age story that aims high but falls short of a being full-fledged gangster epic. It is ultimately unsatisfying but for everything it lacks in cohesive morality, it mostly makes up for in the heartfelt tale of family at its center.

Based on the true story of an underage Detroit cocaine kingpin and FBI informant, the film takes place over several years in the 1980s and chronicles the brief rise and sudden fall of Richard Wersche Jr. Playing the titular role of Rick is newcomer Richie Merritt who is despite being overshadowed by magnificent performances by a cast including Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Jason Leigh is serviceable and non-offensive in a role that mostly demands he react to the things happening to him. Rick is like many teenagers. He is awkward and quiet, uncomfortable in his skin, and due to his environment in a constant state of tough-guy posturing. Rick’s take-no-shit attitude eventually earns him the respect of the local black crime organization. Rick is in business with his father as small-time arms dealer who buys AK-47s at gun shows and sells them to local gangs. For reasons that are never properly explained, no one respects Richard Wersche Sr. so it’s his son who does most of the business.

Rick begins to be seduced by the glamour of the criminal life and we are treated to some slickly-cool sequences in the roller disco which forgo the de-saturated color palette of most of the film for lush neon. These visually striking segments are where we see that the mayor and several members of the police force are mingling with the criminals. Detroit is shown to be a place where the corruption goes all the way to the top. For this reason, Rick is approached by the FBI who are investigating the corruption. They threaten that if he does not help them, his father could be put in prison. The AK-47s have been used in a rash of crimes lately and Richard Sr. is set to take the fall. Rick puts himself in danger and betrays the new friends he has made in the criminal world by becoming an FBI informant.


In many ways this is a paint-by-numbers crime epic at first glance but it is the family story and casting where ‘White Boy Rick’ excels. Matthew McConaughey plays Richard Sr. as a loving father who is trying in vain to give his family the best life he can. His daughter Dawn is played by Bel Powley who is funny, defiant and progressively ravaged by drugs. She fights against her father’s efforts to keep her from the path she is going down and is so perfect as an empathetic and druggie burnout that it seems like the role she was born to play. Mike’s grandparents are played by a cantankerous Bruce Dern and a hilariously detached Piper Laurie. The cast is one of the strongest parts of this film and carry it through a lot of its weaker aspects. The FBI agents are always-stellar Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane who is permanently tremendous and never gets enough work. They are joined by Detroit Detective Jackson portrayed by Brian Tyree Henry who seems indistinguishable from his ‘Atlanta’ Paper Boi performance but he is always a joy to watch. Crime boss Lil Man is played with the right balance of warmth and intimidation by relative newcomer Jonathan Majors (‘Hostiles’) and Taylour Paige is memorable as his wife and alluring disco siren Cathy who is both a supportive mother figure and source of temptation for Rick.

This is the second feature film by French director Yann Demange who previously made 2014’s ”71′ and he handles the job well. His camera floats naturally and adds a sense of realism. There are quiet and beautiful moments that exist outside of the crime-ridden setting. It is in these tender moments such as Richard Sr. holding his baby granddaughter for the first time and a heartbreaking sequence where he carries his daughter away from a drug house that ‘White Boy Rick’ distinguishes itself among the countless true crime stories that have come before. At its best moments this plays out more as Terrance Malick than Martin Scorsese. Much of the credit for these luminous scenes must go to composer Max Richter. Whether crafting emotionally-wrenching scores for HBO’s ‘The Leftovers,’ the ‘Black Mirror’ episode ‘Nosedive’  or Ari Folman’s striking and experimental ‘Waltz with Bashir’ and ‘The Congress,’ Max Richter is a composer who demands attention. He is someone who invariably elevates any work he is involved with, this is no exception.

Where ‘White Boy Rick’ stumbles is in the script by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller. It often feels like it’s trying to be too many things at once. It wants to be a touching family story and a gangster epic. It wants to be a comedy and a drama. Perhaps in more capable hands this could have been pulled off but I found myself experiencing thematic whiplash as it struggled to find its footing. There are large swaths of the story that seem to be missing as we jump between plots and threads go nowhere. I wish the filmmakers would have committed to the much more engaging family story at its center rather veering into familiar (and incomplete) crime biopic territory. My favorite scenes are ones where a couple kisses on the hood of a car at the drive-in or roller skate surrounded by smoke and colored lights as 80s post-disco deep-cuts boom through unseen speakers. This film is best when it’s not trying to fit into familiar molds.


One of the unavoidable issues in telling this story is the ambiguous morality of what is portrayed. Rick is largely shown as a sympathetic character who takes care of his family and is manipulated by the FBI. This may be true. I am not familiar with the true story and cannot speak to that. But what is obvious is that the rough edges are sanded down completely. We are told that Rick has become a drug kingpin but other than the occasional pile of money and him delivering groceries to the mother of his child, we are not shown any sort of lavish lifestyle. Rick is making a fortune selling life-destroying cocaine yet we are never shown the effects of this. His sister acts as a representation of the ravages of drugs but she is disconnected from anything that Rick is doing. Also omitted is the inevitable violence associated with the drug trade. Violence happens at the periphery, but it’s never by Rick or his family. Bad things happen to Rick, he does not do bad things.

Despite its many flaws, ‘White Boy Rick’ is very enjoyable. All of the performances are well-realized by its superb cast. I do wonder who this film is for. Fans of ethically ambivalent crime stories like ‘Scarface’ will find the sentimentality insufferable. People looking for a family drama will be turned off by the scattershot storytelling. This film is perhaps best enjoyed as a historical glimpse of a time and place as well as a showcase of acting talent. Also the emotionally wrenching scenes set to the Max Richter score are effective and stirring.

Unfortunately this is seems like a whitewashed version of history that acts as a defense of someone who made some very bad mistakes at a young age and paid too high a price. I do recommend it despite the lack of authenticity.