Films about the drug trade, be they biopics of true crime or fictitious morality plays, are most certainly plentiful - doubly so if you set your sights on the 1980's as your timeframe of choice. White Boy Rick lands into that basket itself, but unlike most other imitators, this film does things a bit differently under the auspices of director Yann Demange, as well as writers Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller. In particular, it tells the little known story of a reluctant drug dealer who was not only the youngest FBI informant in history, he was also in the drug game for, arguably, all the right reasons.
Between 1984 and 1987, Richard Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) went from a struggling teen helping his father (Matthew McConaughey) sell guns to a drug kingpin being run by the FBI. He climbed fast, made friends, and eventually became the most powerful player in the criminal underworld in his hometown of Detroit -- White Boy Rick. The story of his exploits, and their eventual consequences, have never been common knowledge to the public -- until now.
White Boy Rick makes for an engaging narrative that occupies a middle ground between standard biopic and a typical family drama. This makes for a rather unfocused narrative on the whole, though it's not without purpose, as the performances in White Boy Rick are the film's strongest assets. The Wershe family history is certainly a colorful one, as father, son, and daughter (played to great effect by Bel Powley) were all adjacent to or directly involved with the drug trade. For the most part, Rick's efforts in his drug dealing enterprise are the focus of the film, with the story of his family struggles mixing in here and there.
The ensemble on display inhabits this strange but true story of Richard Wershe Jr.'s rise from friend of the local drug circuit to a full blown player, and Merritt plays all facets of his role with a confidence that totally undermines his status as a newcomer. While White Boy Rick is his first film, his role has him in close proximity to Matthew McConaughey's part as his father, Bruce Dern as his grandfather, and Piper Laurie as his grandmother. And yet, Richie Merritt holds his own among these titans, making quite a name for himself in the process. Similarly, Bel Powley's portrayal of Rick's sister, Dawn, shows not only the ravages of drug addiction, but also the touching sibling bond between Rick and Dawn. Together, these actors are a believable family unit, and this anchors White Boy Rick with a solid bedrock of performances that make its world feel realistic.
The downside to this scenario is that it leads to White Boy Rick's story getting a little too busy with the family drama, to the point where the story of Rick's path to becoming a big time criminal, and every move for survival after that point, becomes somewhat muddled. Not to mention, Rick's story as an individual party suffers slightly because of this, with portions feeling like they're missing crucial / anticipated details as it speeds towards the finale. Were his earlier scenes with the FBI agents trimmed in favor of these details, this might have worked better, and even made the final act's scenes with those characters all the more powerful.
Overall, White Boy Rick is a bit underwhelming as story, but absolutely magnetic as a collection of performers giving the film their all. While it's not totally fleshed out as a narrative, that doesn't make it any less exciting to watch. It's just that you, as an audience member, are left wanting more answers for questions that come up in the gaps of information provided. White Boy Rick tells a true crime story where the "bad guy" is someone you can actually find yourself liking, because of his noble intentions in an ignoble racket. Richard Wershe Jr's incredible, but exceedingly true, story was one that needed to be told, as the circumstances behind his eventual fate are so off the beaten path. With the creative talent behind this project, it's thankfully a story worth watching.