DIR: Yann Demange • WRI: Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, Noah Miller • PRO: Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, John Lesher, Jeff Robinov, Julie Yorn • DOP: Tat Radcliffe • ED: Chris Wyatt • DES: Stefania Cella • MUS: Max Richter • CAST: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Matthew McConaughey, Eddie Marsan, Richie Merritt
In Yann Demange’s sophomore directorial offering, and based on a true story, White Boy Rick explores Detroit’s drug epidemic in the 1980s and the titular Rick’s (Richie Merritt) involvement in the trade. Rick is a fourteen year-old boy with a shrewd sensibility who decides to support his father Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) selling modified guns to a local drug gang. The gang then take Rick under their wings and dub him ‘White Boy Rick’. With Rick Sr.’s gun transactions catching the attention of the FBI, they decide to utilise Rick in assisting their takedown of the local gang’s drug trade by him becoming an informant.
In his debut film performance as White Boy Rick, Richie Merritt delivers a standout performance that firmly allows you to believe in and root for his character’s respective motivations. Matthew McConaughey is billed as the leading character here; although, his role is more of a supporting one and Merritt is well-equipped to lead this film when the Oscar-winner is not on screen. Both characters work well together and they’ve their own motivations for what they do, but it’s ultimately to support themselves and their sister Dawn (Bel Powley), who is affected by and addicted to the Detroit drug problem. All three characters are in a blue-collar family that are struggling to live and all three have chosen a particular path as their means of survival.
The film captures the harsh environment of the Detroit world the characters live in. The film seems to be in a permanent state of winter and the harsh and cold mise-en-scene is beautifully captured by cinematographer Tat Radcliffe. There is excess with the riches of the drug trade, such as White Boy Rick buying an obnoxiously-gold chain to fit in with the gang, and then there is the severity of the drug problem captured with sequences such as Rick and Rick Sr. removing Dawn from a crack house. A balance is achieved between both but the struggle is not ignored. Rick Sr.’s arms dealing essentially supports criminals, but it is done to support his own family and an optimistic vision of the future. Rick works to support his family too and to ensure Dawn can come home and recover.
Although, the positives of the film are undermined by the unravelling of the film’s final act. The narrative skips past many years at such a rushed rate and any support of Rick’s motivations decreases at a rushed rate too, especially when you consider the character is not fictitious. It’s a pity as Demange managed to create a film that was engaging up to that point and the film fails to have a continued sense of suspense or intrigue like his previous feature ‘71. Eddie Marsan features in an odd cameo role that has an impact on Rick’s narrative in the final act and his appearance carries no weight in what should be more of a significant plot point in altering Rick’s arc. Things like this affect the plot’s progression and is a disappointing way to end a film that could have been great. Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie are included in supporting roles that also offer no significance and both characters could have been removed from the script.
Despite these missteps, White Boy Rick’s solid aspects do make for an enjoyable film. There is an atmospheric soundtrack by Max Richter that efficiently captures the mood of certain sequences and then there are the acting performances themselves. Matthew McConaughey continues to impress with his post-McConaissance roles (although, let’s forget about Dark Tower) and is cementing his status as a bona fide character actor.
Yet, White Boy Rick is all about Richie Merritt as White Boy Rick and the journey he embarks upon growing up in the Detroit of the 1980s. Much like Michael in Frank Berry’s Michael Inside, Rick is a sympathetic character that has to live with the societal struggles he has been raised alongside. Merritt is one to watch and White Boy Rick would have truly suffered without his performance.