Richard Wershe Jr., infamously known as "White Boy Rick," is the longest serving non-violent juvenile drug offender in the history of Michigan. He's still behind bars and due out on parole Dec. 25, 2020. How Wershe, now 49, landed in the clink is the focus of French-born British filmmaker Yann Demange's "White Boy Rick," a true-crime drama trying too hard to be "American Gangster" or "Donnie Brasco" or "Blow."
Wershe's story is one of those too-unreal-to-be-true tales. At age 14 and sporting a peach fuzz moustache, he was the youngest FBI informant in American history. The information Wershe provided during the mid-'80s at the peak of the Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign led to the downfall of some of Detroit's biggest drug dealers. After the Feds were done with him, Wershe pushed crack until he was busted at age 17 and sentenced to life. Even the dealers he helped put away were eventually released.
The movie, with a script by Andy Weiss and twins Logan and Noah Miller, doesn't spend much time on the miscarriage of justice angle. They're just not interested. Instead, they oscillate between the thug life side of things and the trainwreck father-son relationship between Wershe (played by newcomer Richie Merritt) and Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey). These two elements never crystallize into a cohesive whole, leaving the impression they're two different scripts smushed together. So dynamic is the family side of the story, you wish Demange (the IRA drama "71") focused solely what a hot mess these people are. Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie are practically afterthoughts as the grandparents who reside across the street in their scuzzy Detroit neighborhood. Bel Powley ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl") plays Rick's sister, Dawn, characterized as a cookie-cutter strung-out junkie. Jennifer Jason Leigh ("The Hateful Eight") and Rory Cochrane ("Black Mass") have very little to do as FBI agents except drive around the streets of Detroit coercing Rick into doing their bidding.
The movie might be about how the junior Wershe breaks bad, but it's the senior Rick who holds your interest. And McConaughey — with a paunch and mullet — plays the dad with his de rigueur all-in gusto. He's a street hustler with a heart of gold, even if the AK-47's he's selling out of the trunk of his car are killing innocent kids. Early in the film, young Rick recognizes the family is stuck in a bad way and asks to move. Dad replies "a lion don't leave the Serengeti." In a visit to the prison at the end of the movie, McConaughey is downright heartbreaking as a father realizing that his choices caused so much tragedy. Hands down, he steals the show, even if you can feel the restraint in the scenes he shares with the rookie Merritt. But when the Oscar-winner goes toe-to-toe with Powley, the results are pretty explosive. She is terrific, with those saucer-shape eyes speaking volumes for a character who is woefully underdeveloped. That's a problem throughout the film. It's way undercooked, so much so that it feels phony. (A quick Google search shows there's far more to this story than Demange reveals.)
The other supporting players are also one note: Brian Tyree Henry as a police detective; R.J. Cyler, Jonathan Majors and Raekwon Haynes as stereotypical thugs in the Curry Crew; Eddie Marsan as a dealer and Taylour Paige shows up as the taboo object of Rick's affections. Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe lends a great assist, convincingly creating a gritty and visceral look to 1984 Detroit, where it's always dark and rainy.
For his debut, Merritt, who is in nearly every scene, cries on cue and aptly conveys that poignant moment in a child's life when he realizes his parent isn't perfect; that dad has real feelings, anxieties and makes mistakes. Merritt is borderline ineffective in eliciting our empathy because — no matter the intentions or acting — it's hard to root for a drug dealer who continues to make bad choices, even if those actions are in the name of family. But he is effective in showing a tangible loss of innocence, which is the trajectory the character takes all the way to the big house, where he unjustly remains.