Richard Wershe Jr is the very embodiment of the phrase “too much too young”. As the facts of his rather crazy, real-life case aren’t widely known, we won’t go into the full details; suffice to say, the kid known as White Boy Rick didn’t so much come of age as headlong crash into it.
It’s a fascinating story — high-school drop-out joins a Detroit drug gang and informs on them for the FBI — and ripe material for director Yann Demange, who dealt with another young man in a very different hostile urban environment with 2014’s ’71. But with more ground to cover, White Boy Rick is a far less focused story than Demange’s searing Belfast-set debut, so anyone hoping for something that matches ’71’s explosive intensity may be disappointed. White Boy Rick’s straightforwardly chronological approach offers the best way to package its surprises, but it also means it drags in places, especially toward the end, where empathy for its protagonist threatens to slide into mawkishness.
White Boy Rick is replete with fine performances.
Still, there is much to appreciate, like Demange’s attentive recreation of ’80s Detroit: a grim world of rat-infested decay and everyday lawbreaking, but also a vibrant musical hub where roller discos throbbed to the heavy, energising pulse of electro and hip hop. It is also replete with fine performances, from the likes of Bel Powley (as Rick’s addict sister) and Bruce Dern (as his craggy gramps), and not least Matthew McConaughey, who strips away his rugged charms to reveal an impressively weaselly side as greasy “low-life” Rick Wershe Sr. He’s a man whose blend of optimism, self-confidence and broken moral compass make him the worst possible advert for the American Dream. Like a Midwestern Del Boy, Rick Sr flogs assault rifles out the back of his car and announces every year as the one he’ll make it big… By setting up a VHS rental store.
It’s a shame we don’t see more of him, but while the film pokes at the malign effect of this particular father-son relationship, it’s less about the connection between Ricks Sr and Jr than it is Jr’s own trials — which squarely foregrounds newcomer Richie Merritt. Perhaps it is just how the real Rick was, but there is a lumpen blandness to the character and Merritt’s performance, which makes him the least interesting to spend time with, despite the incredible events that befall him. He’s reminiscent of James Frecheville’s similarly crime-plagued adolescent in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom: a kid who would actually be quite dull and forgettable, but for the life-threatening situations he finds himself in.
Of course, his any-teen normality only heightens the effect of his abnormally hazardous situation. But it is a challenge for any audience when the main character is, ultimately, the one you’re least excited to hang out with.