Thursday, September 20, 2018

Movie Review: White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick *** / *****
Directed by: Yann Demange.
Written by: Andy Weiss and Logan Miller & Noah Miller.
Starring: Richie Merritt (Ricky Wershe Jr), Matthew McConaughey (Richard Wershe Sr.), Bel Powley (Dawn Wershe), Jennifer Jason Leigh (FBI Agent Snyder), Eddie Marsan (Art Derrick), Bruce Dern (Grandpa Roman Wershe), Rory Cochrane (Agent Byrd), Piper Laurie (Grandma Verna Wershe), Brian Tyree Henry (Detective Jackson), RJ Cyler (Rudell Boo Curry), Jonathan Majors (Johnny 'Lil Man' Curry), Brad Carter (Bob the Gun Show Dealer), Taylour Paige (Cathy Volsan).
White Boy Rick tells the true story of Ricky Wershe Jr. (played by newcomer Richie Merritt), who at the age of 17 was sentenced to life in prison for dealing cocaine. Although he would get out – 30 years later – his story is one that makes one question the American justice system – that sentences young men to decades in prison, for non-violent drug offenses. Oddly, we know this problem mainly affects black men – the mandatory minimums target them while pretending to neutral, and yet one of the only stories we are being told about is this one about a white kid. That doesn’t make his story any less tragic or unjust – but it’s certainly a curious choice.
The movie tells the story of Ricky’s last three years of freedom – 1984-1987 -  before that decades long prison sentence. He grows up in Detroit – his mother has walked out on them, his father, Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) has a dream of opening a chain of video stories, but for now is selling guns, sometimes legally, sometimes less so, and his sister Dawn (Bel Powley) has become strung out on drugs, and has left the family to move in with her dealer boyfriend. Ricky sinks deeper into the criminal life starting when he walks in to meet dealer Johnny Curry (Jonathan Majors) to sell a couple of AK’s, complete with homemade silencers. From there, he becomes a part of this loose knit gang around Johnny – the only white kid in a sea of black kids. And perhaps that’s why the FBI and local police target him as well. They want him to be their informant – to infiltrate the drug houses, give them tips. In exchange, he gets a little money – but also enough cocaine that he starts dealing himself.
Oddly, this is the aspect of Ricky’s story that White Boy Rick seems to concentrate on in terms of it being a story of injustice – that he was essentially trained by the government to sell drugs, and then punished by the government for selling drugs. But Rick was done with the authorities when he was arrested – and it’s really the mandatory minimums that lead to the decades of jail time – something the movie doesn’t take as much time exploring.
The film works better as a family drama than a crime story though. The performances by Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey and Bel Powley are the reason to see the film. This is Merritt’s first role, and he’s good at playing this na├»ve kid, who gets himself in over his head. But he doesn’t play him as just an innocent victim – he’s a smart kid, who figures out a way to survive. Powley is excellent as a junkie, who still remains a sympathetic character – she gets herself in over her head too, and cannot get out – but still loves her family. As for McConaughey, this is one of his best performances – he isn’t exactly a good guy – he is sleazy – but he is a family man, trying to do best by his family, given his circumstances. He’s smart enough to not get himself in too deep with anyone – which is also why his family struggles to pay the bills.
The film is directed by Yann Demange, following up his tense debut film ’71 about a British soldier caught behind enemy lines as they were in Ireland – and trying to survive. Here, he’s trying to ape Scorsese a little bit, and he does a good job. As the film progresses, it becomes a little less focused – as he tries to tell all the different stories, and they diverge a little bit. But it’s still fine direction.
I do think there is a larger story here that the film mainly sidesteps. The film tries to bring it down to a personal level, but it part of a bigger problem – and I’m not sure the film quite gets that. It’s a decent film, but it could have been a great one.

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