Film Review: ‘White Boy Rick’ Finds Emotion and a Star in Newcomer Richie Merritt

Don’t just judge a film based on its trailer.  One of the many life lessons you learn when working in the film industry.  On the surface, Yann Demange‘s “White Boy Rick” looks to lack any cohesive or structural force that could make it enjoyable for anyone.  Rest assured, though clumsy at times, the heart and soul of the film is wrapped up in its surprisingly touching storytelling ability and a bombastic performance from newcomer Richie Merritt as the titular character.

White Boy Rick,” tells the story of teenager Richard Wershe Jr., who became an undercover informant for the FBI during the 1980s and was ultimately arrested for drug-trafficking and sentenced to life in prison.  Through the tale, we see Rick’s rise and fall, alongside his drug-addicted sister (Bel Powley) and his down-on-his-luck father (Matthew McConaughey).

Writers Andy Weiss, Noah Miller, and Logan Miller create a crime epic of sorts, as we see a young Rick, who has dropped out of school and is desperate to find an opportunity to fix his family dynamic.  The writers weave the titular character through all sorts of stereotypical gangster tropes that we’ve come to see over decades in cinema.  What the writing team does successfully is snagging an emotional reaction from the audience without using the manipulation of showing us, “this is a child.”  Rick is not innocent, his hands aren’t clean, but you root for him.  You root for him to make it, even when you know, there’s no way he will.

Most of these emotional successes of the film lie in the performance of Richie Merritt, a first-time actor that every director should look to have conversations regarding their next projects.  Merritt’s natural talent and charisma bleed through his words, curly hair, and little beats, whether it’s fixing his blue bowtie or walking through a skating rink.  He’s an impeccable find this year.

His co-stars serve him well as Bel Powley ignites the screen with a fiery force while Brian Tyree Henry continues to prove his worth in Hollywood.  Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey manages well for the most part but doesn’t quite connect fully to the collapsing nature or failing responsibility as a parent.  There’s one too many “McConaugh-isms” that poke out every now and again.

Demange’s direction is immeasurable in parts, as he explores moments of fragility and suspense with an assured hand.  His technical team is well equipped for the task as Max Richter‘s score and Tat Radcliffe‘s camera work supplement the flick quite well.  Same can be said for Amy Westcott‘s flashy and eye-popping costumes.

Bewildered by how moving and touching “White Boy Rick” was by end credits, it’s ambitious, though admittedly not a perfect outing.  Purely entertaining, the film is well worth the watch for any fan of the crime genre or just simple good ol’ fashion movies.

“White Boy Rick” is distributed by Sony Pictures and opens in theaters on Sept. 14.

GRADE: (★★)

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “WHITE BOY RICK” ranks among the contenders!