Uneven storytelling prevents a deeper connection to the characters in this based-on-a-true-story drug tale
“White Boy Rick” is a tale of crime and punishment in America. And it's one we've seen before. It's based on a true story that has some remarkable details, as well as a larger lesson to tell.
Where it stumbles is really connecting its characters with the audience.
Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) is a young man growing up in 1980s Detroit. We meet Rick at a gun show with his father, Richard (Matthew McConaughey), as the boy calls a gun dealer's bluff on some fake AK-47s he's selling.
Rick's father is a low-level, black market gun dealer with aspirations for a legitimate VCR business (!) to one day lift his family out of the poverty they live in.
Rick's sister, Dawn (Bel Powley), departs the family's home, leaving a teenage Rick alone with his dad. It's the height of the crack epidemic, and Rick has seen enough of the fallout around him to garner the interest of two FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane).
With the threat of prosecuting his dad's illegal dealings, Rick starts making drug buys for the cops. Soon, to avoid suspicion, they have him selling drugs himself. The profits are his to keep.
Nicknamed “White Boy Rick,” he soon earns the trust of a local drug ring. What occurs next is the sort of rise-and-fall story you may expect.
Director Yann Demange creates a solid first half, depicting the sort of grit and desperation that make the drug business alluring in a world of few opportunities.
The period is effectively captured as we see Rick's life unfold over several years. He's a largely sympathetic character, portrayed with typical teenage swagger by Merritt.
But largely due to the uneven storytelling, an emotional connection to Rick is mostly absent. He's a bit of a placeholder in a world we see through his eyes.
McConaughey makes more out of the father character. For a small-time criminal, he's a moral man, and he struggles to make the best for his family even as he realizes he hasn't been the ideal role model for his children.
Second-half missteps also undercut lessons about mandatory drug sentences that could have been the thrust of the whole movie.
Still, “White Boy Rick” is generally effective. It just isn't elevated to the potential of the story.