A few weeks ago we had Kin, and now here’s White Boy Rick, another story about a heavily armed teenager in the dreary streets of Detroit. A real-life inner city Baltimore teen named Richie Merritt plays the title role in this strange true-crime period piece.
It’s about Richard Wershe, Jr., known in the Motor City in the ’80s as White Boy Rick, who at 14 became the youngest-ever FBI informant, and later a crack merchant himself, all before he was old enough to legally buy beer.
This isn’t Scarface, however. There are reports that the film softens the edges of the truth considerably, but at least as depicted by the French director Yann Demange and played by Merritt, Rick was a quiet, nonviolent young man who fell into crime trying to help his broke, troubled family—his big-talking, small-potatoes gun dealer dad (Matthew McConaughey), his drug-addled sister Dawn (Bel Powley) and his cantankerous grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) across the street.
Something about Rick’s unaggressive yet direct manner inspires trust, including in the drug dealers that buy his old man’s firearms and in the FBI agents and Detroit cops that are stalking them, so he drifts into their world without trying to.
The film is full of excellent acting, notably by McConaughey as the dad, portrayed here, rather rosily but effectively, as a loving man who tries, through American-dream bravado, to navigate around the moral bogs from which he draws his livelihood.
There’s also Powley, a Brit brilliantly and heartbreakingly convincing as the crackhead sister, not to mention Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as two feds that don’t inspire a lot of trust.
But Merritt, a novice to acting, holds his own as the star presence in the film. It isn’t just that he feels authentic—the whole movie feels almost as authentic as a documentary, despite the famous actors in it, and despite its liberties with history.
But there’s also a sweetness, even a guilelessness, to Merritt that made me feel protective toward him.
Something feels missing from White Boy Rickat a thematic level; despite the outrageousness of the story and of the outcome of Rick’s case, Demange can’t seem to figure out what point he’s making with it, and this leaves a gap in the movie’s reason for existing.
But the acting and atmosphere fill that gap—It’s never less than gripping, it’s often funny, it’s ultimately touching.