Here’s some good news. White Boy Rick isn’t the movie its advertising has promised. Its trailer, an orgy of images of guns and cocaine and black Detroit hustlers marveling at some white teenager’s awesomeness, played like a Kidz Bop Grand Theft Auto, like Breaking Bad Jr., the latest iteration of the pop-culture fantasy of some cracker waltzing in and taking over everyone else’s racket. But the film itself proves skeptical and humane, committed to the opposite of what that trailer promises. Turns out, the filmmakers are cautious about not romanticizing crime or crack, possibly to a fault — they don’t even seem comfortable depicting it.
Save for a couple of squad walks and the chance to buy groceries for his baby’s mother, crime here doesn’t work out well for Richard “Rick” Wershe Jr., a figure of real-life notoriety. At age 14, the real Wershe became the youngest informant in the history of the FBI after getting caught up in his dad’s selling of illegal guns. The agents prodded the tough-talking street kid into selling crack on Detroit’s East Side, the better to get him close to the real kingpin. The feds’ case was sprawling, touching the gun-show AK-47s that Wershe’s dad (played by Matthew McConaughey) sells from his trunk but reaching all the way to the office of Detroit’s mayor.
As White Boy Rick tells it, the feds got up in Rick’s business before he even really had a business. Rather than some mastermind, the kid is compromised from the start, and the filmmakers pointedly never suggest that his year or two of balling is worth the hell that will follow. Don’t expect Wolf of Wall Street-style debauchery. Here, even that balling looks strained, too much effort for too little pleasure. In White Boy Rick, swanning about VIP style has nothing on just being broke-ass with a date at the drive-in.
The real Wershe (played here by teen newcomer Richie Merritt) stirred up more crazy before being arrested at the age of 17 with a kilo of cocaine than a two-hour movie can do justice. Tracking the uncertain rise of the too-young-to-shave hustler, Yann Demange’s film is overstuffed with incident, with proper nouns introduced without much context, with twists and betrayals that don’t hit that hard. But it’s also alive with excellent actors, with many compelling scenes, and above all else vivid evocations of its milieu, the bombed-out but still kicking Detroit of the early to mid-’80s, a city of champions (Tigers ’84!) but not opportunity. Electric sequences take us to the roller rink, where the camera glides with adult skaters to “Get Off Your Ass and Jam,” or that drive-in, where nobody is actually bothering to watch Footloose, or a tux rental shop the day before a wedding, where the groomsmen are discovering the pleasure and power of dressing sharp. The filmmakers also conjure the city’s cold emptiness, the misery of its drizzles and the treacherous beauty of snow on black highways.
White Boy Rick has reams of story to tear through, but at heart it’s a family drama, one more concerned with the Wershes than with crack, the feds or Detroit itself. Fortunately, this material proves engaging, especially as the filmmakers track the ways the worldview of the father gets twisted in the son — who in turn manages to twist up the father’s. As Rick’s dad, a tender but wild-eyed McConaughey spouts prime McConaughey-isms, mostly on the subject of seizing your piece of the world and making something of it. “Lions don’t leave the Serengeti,” he opines, as the Wershe Chevy rattles down wide, empty boulevards. The question that haunts Rick: How can one become a lion in a wasteland without game?
Merritt shows us Rick’s learning curve, how he hardens from wannabe to actually-is, but in the rushed last half hour he’s not given the screen time to reveal how Rick slips, how he makes the mistake of believing his own hype. The strongest sequences are the most detailed: Rick’s prickly meetings with FBI agents, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, and the father and son’s rescuing of Rick’s sister, Dawn (Bel Powley), from the crackhouse in which she’s holed up. That’s followed by her slow withdrawal in a bedroom of the Wershe’s lower middle-class home, a piercing set piece.
Merritt and McConaughey create between them the sense of a closed loop of understanding, of men of limited imagination sharing patterns of thought. The dad deplores drugs but defends the selling of guns as “constitutional”; the son understands better the costs that both businesses exact upon their neighborhood. But Rick is both savvier than his old man — he sees how to make an illegal enterprise thrive — and also more dumb: He doesn’t know when to lay low, to not grab so much that he draws attention to himself.
At least I think that’s what happens. The machinations of the cops, the feds, the other hustlers and the political establishment of Detroit transpire offscreen, along with most of Rick’s actual crimes. The crime world scenes often play as thin and dashed through. The details of how a kid turns a block of cocaine into bagged rock to be sold on the streets get left to a quick montage, as does how that rock becomes a small fortune. We barely even get to know Rick’s crew, or even if he has one, and it’s not easy, based on the film alone, to understand how far he goes in claiming and protecting his turf. White Boy Rick’s great mystery is whether this is a mistake or by design. Has it been sliced up, a too-short cut carved out from some more expansive version of this story? Or is too polite, refusing to be tempted by the allurements of vice — the very thing audiences are paying to see?