Yann Demange (director)
1h 51mins (length)
06 December 2020 (released)
19 December 2018
With movie heavyweights like Ava DuVernay shedding light on harsh prison sentences for non-violent first-time drug offences, more and more people outside, as well as inside, the United States are starting to become familiar with the injustices taking place in the “land of the free”.
And hot on the heels of 2017 documentary White Boy is Yann Demange’s new feature film, White Boy Rick, which brings another individual case to the forefront.
Although he lives in a slightly dysfunctional family, with junkie sister Dawn (Bel Powley), a mum that’s fled the family home and a dodgy dad selling guns on the black market (Matthew McConaughey as Rick Wershe Sr.), Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt) is ambling along just fine in his Detroit neighbourhood.
Rick Sr. won’t be winning any father of the year awards, but in his own way he tries to do the best for his kids, and he enjoys a close relationship with his 14-year-old son.
As well as selling guns, Rick Sr. also brings in some much needed money by being a police informant. And it’s this sideline that his teen child also begrudgingly gets involved in, despite being far too young to legally be on the FBI’s books. Soon he’s been recruited for some top level informing, which sees him infiltrate Johnny 'Lil Man' Curry’s (Jonathan Majors) local African-American gang (hence his name, White Boy Rick) - but the lines get blurry as Rick genuinely likes his new crew and the huge sums of cash he’s making after his friends in the FBI and police (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane and Brian Tyree Henry) teach him how to make and sell crack cocaine.
After Rick takes a bullet to the stomach, the FBI back off and wash their hands of him, leaving Rick pining for the life and money he once knew. He decides he has no other choice but to go back to the drugs, this time alone without the protection the police offer him, a decision which leads to the teenager soon facing a life sentence behind bars.
This is a truly shocking story, set at the height of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s renewed War on Drugs, where many harsh laws were brought in for those caught dealing. First-time drug dealers, like Rick, who is still rotting in a U.S. penitentiary, found themselves serving longer sentences than murderers and hit men, because in the ‘80s, the one true enemy of the nation was crack.
Merritt does well in his very first role, probably because in many ways he isn’t that different to the real Rick. He was scouted outside his principle’s office, and didn’t even know who McConaughey was when he landed the lead role. While not the strongest young star, his non-acting background brings an authenticity to this real-life character, which McConaughey and Powley, both brilliant here, help nurture and complement during their shared scenes. It’s funny to think now that McConaughey was once the go-to leading man for rom-coms, because he really is one of Hollywood’s finest actors, something he proves yet again here.
The supporting cast, which also includes Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as Rick’s grandparents who live across the street and Taylour Paige as Curry’s love interest, also excel.
Director Demange, in his second-ever feature film, delivers a fine movie which doesn’t wallow, but simply recounts the horrifying truth of what’s still going on in the United States, set against the familiar backdrop of a family tale.