Even in the well-trod genre that is the 1980s drug movie, the true life story of teen drug kingpin Rick Wershe Jr., aka White Boy Rick, stands out. The baby-faced baller moved serious weight in Detroit in the mid-'80s, and the legend surrounding him is larger than the real, tragic story. Director Yann Demange's "White Boy Rick" balances these details, both outlandish and intimate, carefully.
Demange conducted a search for a nonprofessional actor to embody the young, street-wise Rick, and he discovered the remarkable 15-year-old Richie Merritt from Baltimore. In his first acting role, Merritt is charming, authentic and incredibly watchable. He gets a heavy-duty assist from his most frequent scene partner, Academy Award-winner Matthew McConaughey, in his full sleazebag mode as Rick Sr., a shady gun dealer.
Demange crafts an intoxicating world of '80s Detroit, at once a ghost town and a vibrant scene, and it's clear why Rick wants in. Scenes at the local party spot, the Skate and Roll, are appealingly dizzying, hazy neon lights illuminating the dancers and dookie chains, glam dolls in sequins, corrupt cops and city officials fraternizing with the dealers.
Rick, a daring, tough, but ultimately sweet kid who boasts an entrepreneurial streak, insinuates himself with the baddest crews in town. He's an ideal mark for a pair of FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane), who lure him with cash and then groom him as a criminal informant. Along with a narcotics officer (Brian Tyree Henry), they even push Rick into dealing himself to authenticate his cover. It's never clear if he fully understands the possible outcomes of his snitching as he struggles to stay one step ahead of the gangs and the feds.
Written by Andy Weiss (TV's "Punk'd") and brothers Logan and Noah Miller ("Sweetwater"), the story has been a hot commodity since the 2014 publication of the magazine article "The Trials of White Boy Rick" by Evan Hughes. While the article was lauded for exposing crooked cops, the movie is at its best in its familial moments.
Bel Powley ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl") plays Rick's sister Dawn, a junkie for whom her father and brother never stop searching throughout Detroit's crack houses. Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie also give memorable turns as his grandparents.
But this is ultimately a father-son story, and McConaughey transcends the wilder aspects of his character to deliver a stripped-down and touching performance of a man utterly devoted to his children. The film doesn't hit hard enough as a drug-dusted fairy tale or a gritty criminal justice system indictment. But as a portrait of a family beset by outside forces too strong to combat, it's tender and tragic among the glitz and the grime.