The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.
Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.
What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.
It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.