Richie Merritt’s slurry-voiced performance in the title role of “White Boy Rick” is at once the movie’s greatest strength and its core weakness.
The teenaged, first-time actor certainly holds his own with the experienced likes of Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But at the same time he gives the impression of being just slightly disengaged from the part, almost as though he’s spectator at the kid’s life.
The difference is evident in the contrast between his performance and those of of McConaughey, playing the Merritt character’s low-level gun dealer father, and Bel Powley, who plays his drug-addicted sister. Both go full bore into their roles. That’s especially true of Powley as a sunken-eyed, hysteria-prone junkie, electrifying in a very showy part.
Merritt doesn’t venture as deep into his character, Richard Wershe Jr. It’s a tricky, challenging role, and Merritt is in the vast majority of scenes. The weight of the story rests on his shoulders.
Age 15 when he was cast, a Baltimore high school student with no acting experience, Merriit was the same age as the real-life person he portrays. Director Yann Demange insisted on casting a raw young talent to lend authenticity to the movie.
Wershe Jr. was an FBI informant at 14 in 1984, a drug dealer at 16 and arrested at 17 and sentenced to life in prison in Michigan for dealing eight kilos of cocaine. He’s still incarcerated.
He grew up in a poor predominantly African-American neighborhood of Detroit, and all his friends and associates in the movie are black. He fits in relatively easily but also warily with them because most of them are paranoid, well-armed drug dealers. It’s they who give him the nickname White Boy Rick when he becomes involved in the drug trade.
The bond between Rick and his dad is tight but fraught. He agrees to be an informant for the Feds, led by a hard-eyed agent played by Leigh, in exchange for them not prosecuting his father for selling guns.
The ‘80s Detroit of “Rick” is a wintry moral wasteland. Despair hangs heavy in the air there.
White Boy Rick
3 stars out of 4
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Bruce Dern
Director: Yann Demange
Running time: 1:51
Rated: R for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references and brief nudity