'White Boy Rick' Glosses over Political Message in Favour of Family Drama

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh
'White Boy Rick' Glosses over Political Message in Favour of Family Drama
The poster for White Boy Rick features the slogan, "In 1980s Detroit, Ricky Wershe Jr. was a street hustler, FBI informant and drug kingpin — all before he turned 16." In other words, it would be fair to assume this would be an edge-of-your-seat gangster movie about the rise of a teenage drug lord.

That's not quite right, however. While the real-life story of Ricky Wershe Jr. is almost too shocking to be believed, White Boy Rick focuses primarily on the bleak family struggles that drove him to a life of crime.

Richie Merritt stars as Rick Jr., a teen with a gossamer moustache, growing up amidst the crack epidemic in an impoverished area of Detroit. His loving lowlife of a dad Rick Sr. (played with great pathos by Matthew McConaughey) is a gun dealer who does business with drug gangs, while his sister Dawn (Bel Powley) runs away from home and battles addiction.

Meanwhile, Rick Jr. is making friends in all the wrong places. While doing gun deals on behalf of his dad, he makes buddies with a gang, and he also gets roped into being an informant for police officer Boo (Brian Tyree Henry). Incredibly, the FBI (played here by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) even recruits the kid to buy and sell drugs as part of an underground operation. Rappers YG and Danny Brown have small roles as members of the crime world.

This is exciting stuff, but the twists and turns of Rick's narrative often get glossed over in favour of family drama: Dawn's brutal detox from drugs, Rick Sr. hatching plans to start a video store, everyone complaining about how they don't like pancakes, etc. This makes the characters feel real — White Boy Rick is based on a true story, after all — but it means that Rick Jr.'s rise in the criminal underground gets glossed over. Startling developments occur during time-jumps, and after the slow-paced beginning, the final act feels rushed. And while the white characters get extensive character development, we never learn all that much about the many black supporting figures and their own family struggles.

In recent years, Ricky Wershe Jr. has been the subject of mainstream media attention because of the way his story highlights the failings of the criminal justice system and the futility of the war on drugs. And while it's understandable that director Yann Demange wanted to explore man behind the myth, White Boy Rick misses an opportunity to dig deeper into the politics and dubious police behaviour that are the real issues here. Rather than a scathing social critique, all we get is a pretty decent family drama. (Sony)