White Boy Rick is fine.
If that's all you needed to glean from this review: a recommendation whether it's qualitatively sound or not (a reductive way of approaching film criticism, but whatever), then there you go. Fresh off the riveting '71, French director Yann Demange transplants his love of cold, hard, concrete textures to American soil, crafting an outsider's look at the country's mythical Dream that reminds us all (often in redundant fashion) that it's going to be unattainable for most, due to their social status. The true story of aspiring video store owner Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) and his son Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt), who sold guns to local dope dealers in an effort to try and rise out of poverty in Detroit (before the titular hustler graduated to crack and then became the youngest FBI informant on record), White Boy Rick is painfully familiar (if somewhat artfully elevated by Demange's direction). Unfortunately, the routine narrative and themes go a long way toward explaining why the film fails to really connect on any deeper level beyond surface technical flash.
We pick up with Ricky when he's fourteen, putting a little shine on redneck vendors at a Michigan gun show so that his daddy can swoop in and scoop unregistered AK-47s on the cheap, before pawning them off to Lil’ Man (Jonathan Majors), a low level Motor City man of violence who employs kids the same age as Junior as his teenage lieutenants. These guys aren't fucking rocket scientists, and thus the FBI are on the Wershes' dilapidated, snow-covered front porch mere days after the guns are connected to a string of crimes committed by their new owners, allowing morally bankrupt Agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) to propose a deal to the kid in exchange for protection of his father: start slinging rock on behalf of a local police officer (Brian Tyree Henry), so that the narcotics dick can manufacture evidence to nab Rick Sr.’s former buyers. Not really knowing any better (because, again, he's fourteen), the kid agrees, only to get gut shot by one of Lil' Man's underlings once the linchpin deduces his only Caucasian employee's a snitch.
To be honest, all the pulpy criminal business is easily the least interesting part of White Boy Rick, as the screenplay – penned by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Andy Miller – takes its "truth is stranger than fiction" premise and explores it in two separate ways. The first is a routine felony fable, where we watch (pretty much fully knowing how this is all going to end up) as Ricky digs himself a deeper grave with the FBI, who are essentially devising one of the most despicable entrapment snares of all time. The second (and vastly more heartfelt and entertaining) narrative strand is an empathetic familial drama, where we watch these trashy white folks do whatever they can to keep bread on their table and a meager vision alive, with Richard Sr. becoming an almost cursed patriarch, destined to fail time and again as his son rises out from underneath him to higher levels of power, and his daughter Dawn (Bel Powley) sinks to the lowest levels of addiction.
When Demange intersects his two storytelling modes, White Boy Rick momentarily comes alive. Despite desiring to give up the game and return to school, Rick’s gunshot injury delays his decision to seek his diploma, thanks to his high school administration deeming him too dangerous to be around the other kids. At the same time, he's informed (in rather hilarious fashion) that he's fathered a daughter with Brenda (Kyanna Simone Simpson), and opts to "do the right thing" and try to support the child. When combined with his sister's battle with drug dependency, Ricky's able to concoct a convincing argument for Rick Sr. to let him sell drugs in an attempt to relieve their current predicament. Naturally, it all goes to shit, and Demange is intent on illustrating how various systems and circumstances inadvertently (and sometimes nefariously) conspire to keep subsections of the American populous in poverty forever.
Though we can see the endgame of these outlandish true life events coming from a mile away (or just look them up on Wikipedia), Demange's technical tenacity is often enough to overlook the obviousness of his sociological interrogations. '71 cinematographer Tat Radcliffe recreates Detroit (via Cleveland, Ohio location shooting) using a steady, gliding camera, making neon-drenched roller rinks and sleet-slicked highways come to life in equal measure. During the day, the sun reveals the city to be a desolate wasteland, filled with broken-down row homes and exhaust fume-choked garages. At night, the blackness is given added depth thanks to the constantly falling, dirty snow. Anybody who's ever spent time living in a wintry US metropolis will recognize the unforgiving amalgamation of elemental frigidity and brutal brick structures.
As we've come to expect during the years following his slightly exaggerated "McConaissance", McConaughey is absolutely brilliant as Richard Sr, barely keeping a brood that lives on both sides of the same street – as his parents, Roman (Bruce Dern) and Verna (Piper Laurie), watch through the blinds in about as much disbelief as the audience does – from falling apart completely. Sporting a greasy mullet, killer shades, and a thick corduroy jacket seemingly at all times, his take on Wershe paints the man as an individual who knows he was practically shat out by his mother with "Born to Lose" tattooed on his forehead, and has been trying to rub that permanent ink off ever since. Yet the movie star's innate charisma and charm are played to eleven, as both Demange and the performer seem to recognize that the only way to not let White Boy Rick become a total downer is by allowing McConaughey to make light of even the darkest situations. Suddenly, Richard's bickering with Dawn (after catching her screwing a drug dealer for a fix) is hilarious as well as heartbreaking, the poor papa thinking he can diffuse the situation by taking his bass head offspring for custard instead of straight to rehab.
Plucked from obscurity in a Baltimore high school, Richie Merritt possesses a mush-mouthed naturalism that lends White Boy Rick a disarming level of authenticity. We believe Ricky's from the streets, because Merritt is practically one degree removed himself. However, acting can be a tricky tightrope to walk, but Merritt transposes his God given con man charm onto the few character building lessons he was obviously gifted by the production in-between takes, bringing the titular mini-kingpin to life in convincing fashion. Every scene is played with just enough understatement, which is necessary for us to buy this shaggy white kid unassumingly entering a world of stone cold killers. At the same time, debuting opposite a star of McConaughey's magnitude would seem like a rather daunting proposition on paper, yet Mr. "Alright, Alright, Alright" ends up becoming the yin to Merritt's yang; his relative bigness offset by his son's reserved, pragmatic temperament. Watching the two bounce off one another is a real joy, and it'll be fascinating to see how the up-and-comer grows with future roles.
Nevertheless, one can't help but wish that the rest of White Boy Rick clicked as well as its central performances. Is the narrative tragic? Sure, especially once you discover how Rick (who's still very much alive and unwell) eventually inherits his father’s fate due to his well-intentioned but most definitely illegal schemes to transcend his station in life. Yet this tale beyond the pale never quite falls into the realm of actual "tragedy", as one can't help but observe (from an admittedly removed and privileged position) that every step he's taking in these illicit endeavors ensures that his fortune isn't so much predetermined, but self-made. Ricky Wershe Jr. may have been set up by the Feds, but the kid also allowed himself to be to a certain degree. Perhaps most damningly is Demange and his screenwriters' decision to never give us a clear cut answer as to why his life is more precious than the multitudes he destroyed with his lethally addictive product. Crack was a means to an end, but we have to consider multiple ends (not just our protagonist’s) in order to fully engage with the story beyond simple recreation, and White Boy Rick never cuts its clandestine history with the correct amount of raison d'être.
White Boy Rick is in theaters now.