Combustible Celluloid
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With: Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, YG, Taylour Paige, Danny Brown, IshDARR, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Kwon Haynes
Written by: Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, Noah Miller
Directed by: Yann Demange
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity
Running Time: 110
Date: 09/14/2018

White Boy Rick (2018)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Detroit Tired

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This gritty, scuzzy biopic starts well, with fine casting and performances and vivid emotional bonds, but it eventually becomes a stern cautionary tale and sinks into a downbeat, hopeless final act.

In White Boy Rick, Ricky Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) is a teen in the 1980s living in destitute Detroit with his father Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), his sister Dawn (Bel Powley), and his grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie). His father buys guns at gun shows, fits them with home-made silencers and sells them for a profit. Ricky joins the business, selling AK-47s to a local gang, the Currys.

He makes friends with them and earns their trust. When the FBI cracks down on his father, Ricky agrees to act as a drug buyer, then as a drug seller, for them. When the Currys find out, trouble comes knocking. Ricky then convinces his father that they need to get into the drug business for real, to make ends meet and save their family. But there's a price to pay.

Directed by Yann Demange ('71), White Boy Rick re-creates a blown-out Detroit landscape, where the perpetual cold, drizzly weather only highlights the graffiti-covered ruins. By comparison, the local roller-skate club, with its throbbing lights and music, feels like paradise. The movie's cast seems to fit right in (especially newcomer Merritt), feeling authentic and home-grown rather than made-up. Even sex-symbol McConaughey looks wretched in his greasy mullet and sleazy mustache.

Aside from a few movie-ish conventions (montages, musical needle drops, etc.) the movie surges on its immersive human connections, even between Rick and the FBI agents (well played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane), and manages a striking visual or two (Rick carrying a large stuffed duck he found on the sidewalk).

Eventually the filmmakers decide to stick too close to the real, harrowing story, but can't find anything to say about it other than: "isn't this terrible?" White Boy Rick can't seem to decide if it wants to be about the characters or the broken system, and both sides of the story suffer for it.

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