In real life Richard Wershe Jr. lived twenty lives all before the time he could legally have a drink. As a teenage FBI informant he lived the high life before it all came crashing down. A new film, “White Boy Rick,” details his rise and terrible tumble.
14-year-old Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) a.k.a. White Boy Rick, lives with his father Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey),and older sister Dawn (Bel Powley) across the street from his grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) in 1980s Detroit. Despite the newly launched “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign crack is everywhere, seducing many in his neighbourhood.
Sr. is a small time dealer in illegal guns with aspirations of one day opening up a legit business. Before he can do that, however, Jr. is convinced to become an undercover agent for the FBI. If he snitches on local drug dealers, they say, the feds will leave his father’s operation alone. The teenager takes the deal and soon is dealing cocaine and rolling in cash. His run comes to a sudden end when he becomes a victim of the war on drugs. Arrested for drug possession of an enormous amount of cocaine the feds drop him like a hot potato and he is sentenced to thirty years behind bars.
There’s a lot going on in “White Boy Rick.” The main thrust of the story, Jr.’s rise and fall, is muddied by the addition of side characters. They’re often entertaining—particularly in the case of the grandparents—or unexpectedly touching—Powley nicely portrays Dawn’s fragility and descent into addiction—but feel like after thoughts in an already busy movie.
Newcomer Merrit and McConaughey have great chemistry. Merrit, found at a Detroit casting call, isn’t quite up to the emotional heights necessary for us to care about him but fares better when he’s required to swagger around the screen.
While overstuffed, “White Boy Rick” does give McConaughey a chance to act as anchor, deftly portraying his desperation for the American Dream while keeping his family together in the only way he knows how.
“White Boy Rick” nicely captures the grit of 1980s Detroit and makes a powerful statement of the failure of the war on drugs but despite the multi-pronged story and dramatic turns in Jr.’s life it never completely grabs our attention.