White Boy Rick's trailer, an orgy of images of guns and cocaine and black Detroit hustlers marveling at some white teenager's awesomeness, played like a Kidz Bop Grand Theft Auto, like Breaking Bad Jr., the latest iteration of the pop-culture fantasy of some cracker waltzing in and taking over everyone else's racket. But the film itself proves skeptical and humane. Turns out, the filmmakers are cautious about not romanticizing crime or crack, possibly to a fault -- they don't even seem comfortable depicting it.
At age 14, the real Rick Wershe Jr. became the youngest informant in the history of the FBI after getting caught up in his dad's selling of illegal guns. The agents prodded the tough-talking street kid into selling crack on Detroit's East Side, the better to get him close to the real kingpin. The real Wershe (played here by teen newcomer Richie Merritt) stirred up more crazy before being arrested at the age of 17 with a kilo of cocaine than a two-hour movie can do justice. Yann Demange's film is overstuffed with incident, with proper nouns introduced without much context, with betrayals that don't hit that hard. But it's also alive with excellent actors, especially Matthew McConaughey as Rick's father, with compelling scenes, and vivid evocations of its milieu, the Detroit of the mid-1980s.
White Boy Rick has reams of story to tear through, but at heart it's a family drama, one more concerned with the Wershes than with crack, the feds or Detroit itself. Fortunately, this material proves engaging, especially as the filmmakers track how the worldview of the father gets twisted in the son -- who in turn manages to twist up the father's.