Director: Yann Demange | 111 minutes | crime, drama | Actors: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, Raekwon Haynes, Ishmael Ali, James Howard
“White Boy Rick” is based on a true story. In itself this doesn’t mean much, but when it is advertised as explicitly as in (the opening titles of) “White Boy Rick”, there is a brief fear that the film must rely on this purely. That he cannot stand alone in terms of the power of the story or the quality of the performances. Fortunately, this is not so bad. Especially with regard to the latter. “White Boy Rick” stays upright long enough to be able to speak of a decent, entertaining film and is taken to a higher level by the excellent acting. And yes, it also helps that it actually happened.
The film bears similarities with films like “GoodFellas” or (undercover) stories in which a relative outsider becomes part of a subculture of its own (and gets too involved in it); see also “Point Break”, “Donnie Brasco”, and the first “Fast and the Furious”. We see Ricky’s “famous” montages embraced by his new (black) criminal friends, getting out of fat cars, hanging out at parties, disco floors and roller skating rinks, picking out expensive clothes, all accompanied by cool soul and hip hop music. Ricky (Richie Merritt) likes it all, were it not for the fact that he is (eventually) undercover and aims to improve his mates.
So he moves on smooth ice, which on the one hand creates tension, but makes the whole viewing experience fairly grim and ominous. This is not helped by images of the impoverished underclass of which he, his addicted sister and his father (Matthew McConnaghey) are a part. In the beginning of the film, his father mirrors him a nice story for how they will ever rise above this life by setting up a bleeding video rental business. But while this is somewhat romantic, both son Ricky and the viewer feel that father and son are trapped in their current lifestyle. Tragic, although it sometimes borders on voyeurism towards the lower class, with the grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) living across the street and constantly walking around in their underwear or sitting on the porch and Rick and / or his son Ricky the skin full of swearing.
It’s hard to muster too much sympathy for Ricky, who, while being used and abandoned by the FBI, isn’t exactly making wise choices himself. It is thanks to Merritt’s solid playing that we remain interested in him. The same goes for Rick Sr., an unflattering but not a flashy Oscar bait role by Matthew McConaughey, who disappears completely into his character and turns Rick Sr. into a tragic figure, who dreams of a life after – or beyond – Detroit, but can’t get away from it.
‘White Boy Rick’ is a fine, excellently acted drama that carries little tension or surprise, but due to the ‘true’ aspect it makes you sit up a little more and reflects on issues such as abuse of power, situations in different social classes and the possibilities that freedom and free will really offer people. That is quite a nice achievement.