A White Boy in a Dark World

Director Yann Demange is back at TIFF – after his critically acclaimed “’71” – with this gritty tale of relationships amidst poverty and the reality of reckless state-sponsored injustice. “White Boy Rick” is a biographical drama that spans the loss of innocence, set in the 1980s against the backdrop of the crack epidemic and the cruel winters of Detroit.

Premiering internationally at TIFF, the film drew an audience packed to the rafters, curious to discover street hustler, drug kingpin and FBI informant – all below the tender age of 15 – Richard Wershe Jr. The fact that this is his 30th jail anniversary year is perfectly timed with its release.

“White Boy Rick” relies on the resonance power that the notion of a young victim holds. Wersche Jr. – Rick – is an ingenue yet an intrepid decision-maker; a gun dealer-turned state informant-turned drug dealer and ultimately, juvenile inmate.

Greenhorn Richie Merritt captivates the unabashed vulnerability of Rick and carries half of the film’s weight on his young shoulders. The other half is handled arduously by Matthew McConaughey, Richard Wershe Sr. Together, “White Boy Rick” is theirs.

As a tear gently drops down Rick’s cheek, Wershe Sr. helplessly places his hand on the prison glass and aches to free his son, his best friend, from a fate he feels responsible for. Human relationships tell this heart-wrenching tale.

Demange draws from his personal relationship with his father, he has stated, and uses Detroit as a character in itself to proffer a significant setting to the fragility of his characters. It’s cold, it’s wet and the War on Drugs is raging. Wershe Sr. lives in paucity. His wife has left him, his daughter Dawn (Bel Powley) has too – as she spirals into drug abuse and an abusive relationship – and his parents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) flicker as the senior citizens ready to serve up some warm blueberry pancakes.

The first half of the film is less engaging yet sets the tone for the latter which is riveting. Rick is introduced as a boy with an entrepreneurial spirit drawing inspiration from his father, a licensed gun dealer carrying out a side business selling unlicensed silencers. His goal is to bring his sister back home and earn enough to do so.

Father dear holds aspirations to set up his own video store and son goes on to rise the ranks selling guns to drug dealers and hobnobbing with the who’s who in the cocaine world. It’s a glamorous world owned by drug lord Johnny Curry, played smoothly by Jonathan Majors.

As Rick gets initiated into the brotherhood, he earns the moniker that the film goes by. The Feds now have their eye on him. Before he knows it, he’s playing double agent, stealthily maneuvering his way through the nexus of cocaine until a fatal incident forces him off the rails. The birth of his daughter soon after ropes him into the nefarious ring again, eventually leading to his arrest and subsequent betrayal at the hands of the law.

In this beautifully crafted production, with cinematography that transports the eye to the next scene while holding the mind back in the previous a little longer, there are indelible moments. The brutal murder of two boys in their home and the unexpected shooting of Rick in the gut after he grabs a beer from the fridge are two such.

Yet another is the establishing shot of the American flag flying high over the prison holding Rick, like a pall over his future; a symbol of the very undoing of the white boy responsible for uncovering the biggest police-involved scandal in the history of Detroit.

This review was part of a film criticism class for Toronto International Film Festival 2018