All you need to do is read the tagline on the poster for White Boy Rick to see why this true story was ripe for film: “In 1980s Detroit, Rick Wershe Jr. was a street hustler, drug kingpin, and FBI informant – all before he turned 16.” Richard Wershe Jr.’s life sounds like something straight outta the mind of the late, great Elmore Leonard, and director Yann Demange (’71) does an excellent job adapting this crime tale for the screen.
We first meet Rick and his dad, Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) at a gun show where it becomes immediately apparent that despite their respective young age and goofy appearance (McConaughey rocks a pretty sweet moustache and mullet), these guys know their stuff and won’t be taken by any of these sleazy vendors. Rick Jr. can barely grow facial hair but to the credit of first-time actor Richie Merritt, we buy him as a teen who can handle himself in almost any situation. This is important, since we’ll have to stay with this kid as he navigates Detroit’s gang scene while acting as an FBI informant to keep his dad out of prison, dealing with a junkie sister, succumbing to his own teenaged hormones, and somehow believe that he could come out on the other side of all this.
In the great tradition of the McConaissance, McConaughey demonstrates that he can do just as much with a supporting role as he can in the lead. A great cast of character actors help fill out Rick’s dingy yet vibrant world, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Rory Cochrane, Eddie Marsan, Brian Tyree Henry and Jonathan Majors.
At the risk of almost glorifying the drug fuelled scene Rick found himself at the centre of, Demange revels in the era’s mix of Disco and Hip Hop culture . If it ever starts to look like too much fun, just wait ’til he shows you the other side of things. Unfortunately for Wershe, this isn’t really an Elmore Leonard novel, and savvy as he is, he’s not able to perfectly play each side off against one another. To go into much more detail would be to spoil the ending (though the cast has already done a pretty good job of while doing press for the film, the risk you run with a true story I suppose), so go and see for yourself what can happen when you’re a smart, smooth, desperate, natural born criminal living in poverty on the opposing side of Reagan’s war on drugs.