The makers of White Boy Rick seem desperate to want to turn this story (a true story, the title cards never stop reminding us) into a fun one, a vivid slice of working-class life and fetishized tackiness of the kind we never get tired of watching. There’s nothing critics, directors, and audiences alike enjoy more than watching handsome movie stars clothe themselves in working class struggle and contort their beautiful mouths around colorful patois-like “I’m leavin’ this whole fackin’ town in my reahview” or “Didju fuck my wife?”
This kind of story, as seen in Goodfellas, The Fighter, American Hustle, Bleed For This, et. al. is always a crowd pleaser, and White Boy Rick, directed by Yann Demange (’71), clearly wants this to be the 80s-set, Detroit-centric answer to those films previously stated. Only it eventually becomes clear that the material may not entirely warrant it.
Titular 15-year-old White Boy Rick is played by real-life teenager Richie Merritt, a first-time actor who wears his post-adolescent dirt ‘stache like a badge of trashy authenticity. His thick Baltimore accent (can’t miss those horrifying mid-Atlantic “O” sounds, which sound nothing like Michigan’s even more horrific flaaat nasal vaaawels) betrays him as a non-Detroiter. Otherwise, he combines youthful innocence with authentic tackiness in a perfect mix for this kind of story.
WBR lives in a semi-rundown row house with his dad, Rick Sr., played by Matthew McConaughey, an A-lister who never entirely stopped being a good ol’ boy (it’s why we love him); and his junkie sister, Dawn, played wonderfully by Bel Powley, who’s so good at mimicking the garble mouth of an opiate addict that you’d almost think they pulled her straight off the streets like Merritt. We first meet the Ricks in the car, with junior wondering aloud why they still live in a shithole like Detroit. “A lion’s place is on the Serengeti,” senior tells him, always ready with the clever analogies.
We first meet Dawn as they arrive home, and Rick Sr. runs Dawn’s black boyfriend out of the house with an AK-47, with Dawn chasing them down the street in her underpants. In the middle of this, Ma and Pa Wershe (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) show up to yell at Rick Sr. for not being able to control their grandkids. Turns out they live across the street. Dawn’s mom, like so many 2018 movie moms, is gone, having abandoned the family years before, for unknown reasons.
It’s a fun scene, a dysfunctional American Gothic, and White Boy Rick has more like it. Rick Sr. is a big-talkin’ hustler, a schemer who’s trying to fund his plans to open a video store by running guns in the hood. He fabricates silencers in his basement and uses his son to offload the product, who from the start displays an uncanny casualness around tough black guys.
“To come up in here like that you gotta be either stupid or crazy,” says RJ Cyler as “Boo” Curry, junior member of the criminal Curry clan.
Rick and Boo quickly become best friends, with Boo explaining the ins and outs of the Curries’ criminal enterprise to Rick, who becomes an associate of sorts. Rick thus gets to experience all the milestones of a neighborhood coming-of-age tale: impressing the heavy (Lil Man Curry, played by Jonathan Majors), makin’ it with a girl, falling for the heavy’s girl, having his position undermined by an embarrassing family member, etc. Eventually, Rick gets caught up in a viper’s den of Feds (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane), his father, the Curries, local cops (Bryan Tyree Henry from Atlanta), and corrupt city officials.
It’s trope-y, but it works, partly because of solid acting, partly because of competent staging, and partly because they’re good tropes. White Boy Rick is entertaining for most of its runtime, but the ending hits you like a surprise left. It’s only then that you begin to realize that while the filmmakers are great at competently mixing crime movie tropes, this is a real story, and they don’t seem to understand what it’s about.
White Boy Rick, as the title would indicate, is about a neighborhood where the protagonist and his family are the only white people. Which raises the question, why is this story about him? Ignoring the obvious answer about who generally puts up money for movies, I think it’s about Rick because he’s an outlier. He’s a white kid who got caught up doing some of the same things his black peers were doing. As Lil Man Curry tells him, “If you get caught you’ll be doing white people time. If you get us caught we’ll be doing real time.”
Everyone sort of assumes he’ll skate, only he doesn’t (I’m being as vague as I can be here, but if you want to avoid spoilers don’t Google it). This would seem to be the central feature of the story — its biggest question, the reason it’s an outlier, and presumably the reason anyone would want to tell it in the first place.
Why does this weird anomaly exist? That’s the question the film needs to explore. Only in White Boy Rick, the story’s biggest question is relegated to third act twist. It feels like instead of telling the story they had, the filmmakers tried to turn it into something they’d seen. It feels like there was so much more here.