’71 Filmmaker, Yann Demange returns with only his second feature with what, on paper, could only be seen as make believe but the reality, this 80’s set crime drama of a teenager used and subsequently let down by the FBI is taken right out of real life. Demange has created two sides to this coin not just with the events that went down, but also one Families relationship and quest of the American Dream.
Set in 80’s Detroit at the pinnacle of the crack epidemic, Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) was just a 15-year-old kid, living on the poverty line in a single parent family. His Father Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), whilst no angel himself, runs a legalised gun business supplying the average joe on the street as well as to the local drug gangs. Trying to raise his two kids the best way he could but failing where his drug addict daughter was concerned but still striving to one day become legit and own his own video store.
Seeing an opportunity to help his Father out, Rick Jr sells some guns to the local drug kingpin, opening up his path into the gang due to his audacity but just as there seems to be a silver lining forming, Rick Jr is forced into becoming an informant for the FBI in order to save his Father from jail.
The first half builds the story with empathy and compassion, pushed to the limits in order to raise cash; we are invited to get to know who these people were underneath the brash exterior. All too often we are subjected to the same old one-dimensional story but here, Demange has made a conscious effort to humanise not demonise these people due to their actions for a better life. It’s an emotional family struggle even when Rick Jr himself becomes a father at just the age of 17 and realises he again has to go out and do what he can to support his family. It’s in the nuanced part of the film where the film really comes alive.
It’s the second act and the criminal activities that come across as a subdued affair despite its cracking 80’s soundtrack. Staged as bite-sized events stacked on top of each other Rick goes from a hotshot dope dealer, hanging out at the glamorous clubs with ladies at his feet, to landing up in hospital which sweeps him off those feet. All the while the FBI turns their back on the kid they should have protected just to save their own skin.
Demange took a major gamble on the film’s central performance, Merritt had never acted before he landed in this. Merritt was taken from the streets in a similar environment to that of his character and thankfully that paid off. His innocence and nonchalant attitude make the character feel comfortable in his own skin. Whilst the mullet-sporting McConaughey just keeps on maturing in his roles with each and every new role, proving his dramatic acting chops go further than just his pretty face.
White Boy Rick’s failing’s come from the lack of a seamless flow; it feels more like a culmination of events just stuck on back to back. Demange does show us a glimpse of his brilliance in the more intimate family moments in which the film shows its heart on its sleeve. It’s a little lacklustre in its deliverance despite the great performances.
White Boy Rick hits cinemas December 7th