White Boy Rick (2018)

“Make sure you can trust everyone around you.”

It’s important to remember that even when a movie sells itself as a true story, there are still going to major manipulations to the truth as a whole. Some of the people portrayed in White Boy Rick have voiced backlash against the picture – perhaps righteously so – because specific changes were made to their experiences. But that’s just the way it goes, and the alterations help to make this movie walk around in clothes that have been tailored to just the right fit. What it lacks in plot and detail is made up for in spades with intriguing, confusing lead characters.

White Boy Rick knows better than to waste its opening scenes. At a gun show, 14 year-old Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) approaches a table, accusing the seller of pawning off fake AK-47’s as the real deal. He’s right. Over comes Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), a family man who makes his living by illegally moving weapons on the streets. They cut a deal, pack up and drive home along the forgotten roads of 1984 Detroit. Lined by empty homes and decrepit buildings, the Father and Son talk about their plan to go straight sometime soon, possibly opening a video store. For these two hustlers, the Motor City’s vacant lots don’t impose a sense of living in the land of the forgotten, but are seen as an opportunity to take what’s been left behind and make it their own. Re-branding or repackaging, if you will.

Compelling as a family drama (Bel Powley plays the role of drug-addled sister Dawn very well) and a bit tedious as a crime story, the film still more or less succeeds due to its rich, grounded sense of style. Rick enters Johnny Curry’s (Jonathan Majors) dope slinging circle and is intimidated by seedy FBI agents into going undercover within the gang in order to save his father’s back. It becomes very easy to lose track of what exactly is going on during the movie’s second act, especially as it develops situations without first breathing life into all of the people who populate the scenes. Even when White Boy Rick drifts here and there, getting lost in the wealth of excess the story emanates, it’s continually anchored by solid direction and two outstanding lead performances.

Director Yann Demange’s vision for White Boy Rick is hampered by excessive plot. This is too much story for a film that clocks in under 2 hours, and the script spends time dragging out easy scenes instead of elongating the difficult ones. Demange is a very visual filmmaker, as we saw back in 2014’s adrenaline-pumping ’71, and he’s able to bring that same mentality when the biopic doesn’t settle for stagnation. Coming across as a less important or accomplished blend of Goodfellas and Boyz n the Hood, the movie is never better than when it hunkers down and evolves through the dynamics of the father-son relationship. As Richard Sr., McConaughey plays a man who only knows how to do right by continuing to do wrong. And as Rick Jr., the newcomer Merritt brings the arrogant swagger you’d expect from a kind being brought up in these times and circumstances. Their scenes together vary from the funny to the menacing to outright melancholy. White Boy Rick touches on social injustices and white privilege, and it’s never better than when a young kid and his old man join forces with the hope of manufacturing a better future for their family.

“You’re only as good as your word.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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