‘White Boy Rick’ Is a Gritty Telling of a Teenage Hustler’s Life of Crime

Crime does pay, at least for a while. Such was the lesson learned by Richard Wershe Jr., who at 14 started his life as a hustler in the streets of Detroit, first with guns and then with crack cocaine. A nearly 30-year stretch would await the young hustler in prison. Wershe is the subject of “White Boy Rick,” a slightly clunky but very lively drama. Filmed with a starkness worthy of a documentary, it’s true crime with an emphasis on the actual individuals behind the headlines. There are few masterminds or brilliant fiends in this story, it’s about how real outlaws stumble and fall in their chosen line of work.

In 1980s Detroit life is far from easy for the poor. 14-year-old Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) joins his father Richard (Matthew McConaughey) as he buys and sells guns at shows and the streets. It’s tricky business being an arms dealer in this terrain, where your product is likely to end up in the hands of local gangs. The money isn’t that great either and the Wershes live in perpetual poverty, although Richard dreams of eventually opening a video store. The last straw for Rick is when his sister, Dawn (Bel Powley) can’t take it anymore and runs off with her current boyfriend. Rick decides to hustle a few guns on his own to local street hoods, making friends quickly with a top gangster named Johnny ‘Lil Man’ Curry (Jonathan Majors). Curry’s fellow thugs start calling the kid “White Boy Rick.” But Rick soon catches the attention of the FBI. Two agents, Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Byrd (Rory Cochrane) and a detective, Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry), snatch Rick off the street and recruit him to move some crack in order to have someone on the inside. By the time Rick turns 17 this game starts getting trickier and more dangerous.

In a sense “White Boy Rick” is part of the current wave of 80s nostalgia persistent in film and television. Director Yann Demange  and Tat Radcliffe, who previously worked together on the excellent drama about Northern Ireland during the Troubles, “’71,” create a stark and atmospheric Detroit. The streets are threatening while people find escape in decadent parties going on indoors. There’s a “Goodfellas” feel to scenes where Rick is introduced to the gangland underworld, making friends like Boo (RJ Cyler) while developing an instant crush on Curry’s fiancé Cathy (Taylour Paige).  Demange contrasts the world Rick comes from, downtrodden and working class, with the corrupt glitz of the drug trade. It is easy to see why someone would happily trade one for the other.

The screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller succeeds in making this world palpable, with characters that don’t talk like crime film clichés. Rick isn’t necessarily brilliant, he’s just been made a little more savvy by having to survive in a rough terrain. The film doesn’t judge him. It presents him as a creation of circumstances. Early in the movie Richard shows Rick how to make illegal silencers for some AK-47s they’re selling, instructing him in the ways of comparing an extra silencer for the gun to adding fries to a burger order. Before long Rick is using the tactic to make his first gun sale to Curry. Richie Merritt, in an excellent first major performance, plays Rick like a sharp kid who’s still a kid. He’s naïve as he learns how to be corrupt, and fumbles the way someone would in high school or at a new job, but in a far more dangerous world. This angle to the character also gives the film moments of welcome humor, like a scene where he returns from Las Vegas wearing a big Star of David necklace, only to have Richard explain that he’s not Jewish.

It must be said this could have been a greater film. Demange is efficient, but at times he doesn’t seem to know where he wants to stay in terms of following the narrative. The first and second acts are quite strong, as we follow Rick’s rise as a hustler. There’s also great tension between him and Richard, as the father knows his own trade isn’t the cleanest, but he doesn’t want Rick becoming an actual thug. However the third act derails a bit as Demange rushes to cram in multiple story threads, throwing in everything from Rick getting shot to discovering he’s made a child with girlfriend Brenda (Kyanna Simone Simpson). Richard also has one of those moments where he brings Dawn back home and locks her in a room to detox in three quick crossfades. At one point Rick finally gets his chance to sleep with Cathy, but it’s another plot point thrown in then never revisited. By the end when the whole business with the FBI gets tangled up and Rick faces jail time, we wish we had been taking study notes. The tension that was building at the beginning goes down, and a gritty crime tale becomes a formulaic, “based on a true story” piece.

And yet, this is never a boring movie. Much credit has to go to the acting. Matthew McConaughey again continues his career renaissance, delivering a performance of empathy and feistiness. He’s that man who has already lived hard times, hates himself for not doing better but is sober enough to try and stop his son from spiraling into a catastrophe. McConaughey dominates every scene with a rugged charm that is also astute, like a troublemaker who already knows the game all too well.

“White Boy Rick” has grit, strong performances and a first and second act very much worth seeing. It’s that rare crime film where the characters become interesting because there’s nothing exaggerated about them. They are poor souls trying to make a buck in a cruel economy, which is a reality relatable even to those not living the life of the hustle.

White Boy Rick” opens Sept. 14 in theaters nationwide.