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Caitlin Quinlan

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White Boy Rick – first look review

Newcomer Richie Merritt outshines co-star Matthew McConaughey in this gritty crime drama about a real-life teenage FBI informant.

Director Yann Demange delivers a well-rounded if occasionally mundane portrait of Richard Wershe Jr (newcomer Richie Merritt) in this gritty account of the true events that saw the reckless teenager go from the youngest ever FBI informant to the longest-serving non-violent offender in the Michigan prison system

To keep his gun-toting father out of his prison, 14-year-old “Rick” begins working for the FBI to infiltrate the drug circuits in his Detroit neighbourhood, endangering his own life in the process. Falling into the crowd of the Curry gang, a group of African-American drug dealers, Rick works his way up the ladder of Detroit’s elite before becoming the latest victim of a failed system.

Moments of excitement in the film feel disjointed as the stop-start narrative struggles to run smoothly. Matthew McConaughey is strong but relatively unchallenged in his role as Richard Wershe Sr, and the film really hits its stride when the younger actors take centre stage. Bel Powley steals her limited scenes with wide-eyed mania as Rick’s drug-addled sister, Dawn. Merritt and his Curry gang co-stars bolster the comedy throughout as much as they reflect the story’s inherent tragedy, the lost innocence of teenagers caught in a desperate time in American history.

Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the Wershe grandparents complete the dysfunctional family that facilitates the trouble Rick and his father get themselves into. The film fails to make the most of their humour and chemistry, however, sidelining them in order to spotlight the father-son criminal duo. In doing so, it misses the opportunity to interrogate the Wershe’s damaging legacy more thoroughly.

White Boy Rick also contains some iffy caricatures, most notably a questionable Eddie Marsan as a Cuban drug dealer, and amps up the gaudiness for the Curry gang with excessive fur coats and gold chains. Despite these more clichéd images, the film does capture a wider sense of the poverty and destitution of 1980s Detroit. Abandoned warehouses and desolate industrial land backdrop the action, and conversations hint at the broader crisis afflicting the city.

Yet a more nuanced examination of the racial disparities within the drugs epidemic is missed. While Rick’s eventual life sentencing is undeniably harsh, the impact of white criminality on the black community is not addressed. Rick and his father fail to meet any real consequences for their own role in a seemingly endless cycle of crime, perpetuated by the government and shouldered most heavily by the black community. The film is most interesting when it looks beyond its titular protagonist, but misses the chance to do this more.

Published 9 Sep 2018

Tags: Bel Powley Eddie Marsan Matthew McConaughey Toronto Film Festival Yann Demanage

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