Rick Wershe Jr.
It’s a name you probably don’t know. He was an FBI informant who helped bring down drug kingpins, a gaggle of rotten cops and other gang members in ‘80s Detroit. When law enforcement ended their contract with him, Wershe turned to selling drugs, taking over the game he helped expose. He then became a target, was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
All this before he turned eighteen.
He’s celebrated his 30th “prison birthday” in which time he’s missed family milestones and tragedies. He was locked away when they buried his father. He’s had to watch his daughter, whom he had with a girlfriend at 16, grow up from behind the walls of a maximum-security penitentiary. In short, he is the longest-serving non-violent juvenile offender in the U.S. prison system.
It’s an injustice, certainly, but it’s also an outlandish, too-crazy-to-be-real story that actually is based on a true story. As such, it naturally became instant fodder for Hollywood executives, and the film about his life, “White Boy Rick”, was born.
In it, we meet Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) when he becomes an FBI informant at 14. Set in a declining Detroit, his father Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) sells firearms for a living with the dream of one day opening a video store. His mother isn’t in the picture, and his sister (Bel Powley) is an addict, spurting in and out of his life often in just her undergarments, too high to recognize her own lunacy.
This is 1984 and the height of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign against the opioid crisis. Baby-faced with just a sliver of peach fuzz covering his upper lip, Wershe begins buying drugs at the behest of the FBI. He frequents the local roller rink, a front for the drug-dealing Curry Crew, and buddies up to its members. He must juggle his undercover tasks while also keeping his new squad’s suspicions at bay. The consequences of failure are dire.
When his work with law enforcement is complete, Wershe, still a kid at just 16, can’t quit the lifestyle – money, notoriety, women – he’s grown accustomed to and begins selling drugs himself. The living is easy for a short time, until the heavy hand of the law makes an example of Wershe, sentencing him to life behind bars.
The trailer for “White Boy Rick”, a quick edit of the film’s scenes backed by a blaring Donna Summer’s hit from 1977, runs the way I had hoped the film would, connecting plot points in a palatable, enjoyable fashion. It’s quick and punchy and sets a tone most “based on a true story” adaptations have taken lately. (“I, Tonya” comes to mind, a film that told Tonya Harding’s story with a very distinct and attention-grabbing voice featuring larger than life characters that popped off the screen.)
Here stands the biggest flaw of “White Boy Rick”. It tells the story, straight as an arrow, but forgets that it’s supposed to entertain, too. French filmmaker Yann Demange has a good eye for framing a scene, but there isn’t a connection from one to the next. The film moves forcibly, unconvincingly forward, like watching a rug weaved before our eyes. We get from point A to point B, but not without a yawn or a subtle look at our watch to gauge whether it’s worth sneaking out to use the restroom. In this case, it is.
The pieces that make the film are all good: fascinating true story filled with unexpected turns, a cast of talented actors, guns, drugs, sex, roller skating. Yet the film is still flat.
It’s not for lack of talent. McConaughey is as perfect as you’d expect him to be in the role of seedy Wershe Sr., a scam artist with delusions of grandeur who can hardly keep his family together, let alone his career. 17-year-old Merritt is a newcomer who was so far removed from the industry that he didn’t know who his Oscar-winning costar was. He has no prior acting experience and was discovered at his high school principal’s office in Baltimore. He is authentic in the lead role, delivering his lines with deadpan accuracy. We believe him, and he carries much of the film with an oddly intoxicating, understated charm.
The peripheral performances are all convincing, too, and the on-screen chemistry between actors allows for most of our suspension of disbelief. In the most optimistic view, “White Boy Rick” is a well-staged family drama. But its attempt at toeing the line into a complicated crime saga is where the problem lies. It doesn’t make any sort of prominent statement on the country’s drug problem, and, though it elicits sympathy, the film is hardly a political testimony about the judicial system. If it kept us engaged, then perhaps these points wouldn’t matter, but an hour and fifty minutes is a long time to keep us wishing for more.