White Boy Rick Review: White Boy Walking
White Boy Rick is based on the true story of Ricky Wershe Jr. a.k.a. White Boy Rick. Ricky Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) grew up in a poor neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan and lived with his father Richard (Matthew McConaughey) and his sister Dawn (Bel Powley). Richard Sr. dreams of owning his own video store, and to save up to buy the store, Richard Sr. buys guns at local gun shows and sells them to some shady characters for a hefty profit. When the FBI learns about his illegal gun sales, they decide to use Ricky Jr. to help them capture local drug dealers including the town’s mayor. What Ricky doesn’t know is that his involvement with the law is part of a much larger plan that may or may not get him in some serious hot water.
White Boy Rick premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and received a mix reaction. I had very little interest in seeing the film based on what I saw in the trailer, but as a critic, I see as many movies as I can and try my best to go into every film with an open mind. Despite the initial mixed buzz, I have no problem admitting that enjoyed White Boy Rick a lot. The film took about 15 minutes before it hooked me, but after that initial fifteen minutes, I was wholly invested and engaged in the story.
Ricky Jr.’s story is a fascinating and one that is somewhat hard to believe is true. We always hear stories or have seen documentaries about how the government and law enforcement target those who live in impoverished areas. Seeing how the police used this 15-year-old kid as their undercover operative was pretty shocking, to say the least. Ricky Jr. is portrayed as someone who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and interacted with all the wrong people. He wasn’t a bad kid but instead a young man who was very misguided and uneducated. Ricky Jr was presented with an opportunity which he didn’t quite know the repercussions of. As a 15-year-old, most of us were somewhat naive and had very little real-world experience. The same can be said of Ricky Jr. as he had no real clue that what he was doing could severely impact the rest of his life.
Ricky Jr.’s story is a heartbreaking one, but Yann Demange does a terrific job ensuring that the film is as entertaining as it is poignant. I don’t doubt for a second that some liberties were taken with how certain events played out in Ricky Jr’s life but remember, this is a movie, not a documentary. As long as the majority of the story remains true to life, I feel like taking a few liberties here and there is fine as long as they aren’t entirely unrealistic. There are a ton of films based on true events and most of them over embellish some of the facts for the sake of entertainment value. Demange and the film’s writers knew exactly how to tell Ricky’s story and weren’t afraid to add some humor and heart into the mix.
What I loved the most about Ricky’s story is how much he valued his family and friends. Even though his father and his sister weren’t exactly what you would consider great role models, they looked out for each other and wanted to help one another. There is plenty of social commentary within this film about how certain people shouldn’t be parents and yet have them anyway. There is a hilarious scene about midway through the film where Ricky Sr. and Ricky Jr. are talking about life and Ricky Sr. says something along the lines, “I didn’t plan to have your sister. Hell, I didn’t plan for you either.” In a lot of other films this moment would come across as a very dramatic but here it plays for laughs because when watching this film, you know that it’s true and that their relationship is built on not holding back their feelings. In all fairness, Ricky Sr. has no idea that saying something like that is a horrible thing to say to your child but Ricky Jr. isn’t affected by it either. It shows how this sort of upbringing is very different from most children who grew up in a household with a “normal” mother and father.
Richie Merritt who plays Ricky Wershe Jr. is a complete unknown but someone who is destined to become a star if he decides to pursue a career in acting. Merritt is very likable in the role, and his performance comes across as very genuine and sincere. The emotional scenes towards the end of the film are so well done. Whenever a performance requires an actor to break down, there are times where it comes across as a bit too emotional but seeing just a few tears roll down Ricky’s face made such a powerful impact.
Matthew McConaughey’s performance in White Boy Rick is his best since the Dallas Buyers Club. This role felt very different from anything that I have seen McConaughey do before. He has played a father in the past but seeing him play this sort of clueless dad felt like a massive change of pace for the actor. I love how you can tell that Ricky Sr. thought he was always doing the right thing even though his decisions weren’t always the best. You can tell that he wanted to do more but always held himself back even when it came to his kids.
Demange’s take on Detroit is one that is very gritty and realistic. Even though I haven’t been to Detroit, I have seen photographs, news stories, and documentaries about the city. The city of Detroit serves as both a backdrop and a character in this film. Demange does a great job of showcasing what life is like there and how corruption and poverty overrun the city. Seeing Detroit like this isn’t something that is surprising as a viewer but instead a reminder that cities like it exist and how they affect the lives of those who live there.
White Boy Rick is an eye-opening and entertaining film featuring two outstanding performances by Richie Merritt and Matthew McConaughey. Demange has crafted an excellent movie about a young man whose entire life was taken from him. White Boy Rick is a powerful and influential film about the war on drugs. I highly recommend checking the film out when it opens in theaters on Friday, September 14.