Many people dream of making a modern-day film noir, and purely in terms of style, White Boy Rick comes close. Set in Detroit in the 1980s, the film tells the true story of a teenage boy who was first inveigled by the FBI into becoming a drug dealer and informant and then found himself seduced by a life of crime. Director Yann Demange, who made the IRA thriller ’71, does a fine job re-creating time and place, and the film has a gritty texture. Where it falters is in creating characters who can compel audiences in the way that the great noir anti-heroes did. Despite impressive performances by Matthew McConaughey and newcomer Richie Merritt, the film fails to engage or enlighten. It may draw some initial audience interest but seems unlikely to have a long life at the multiplex. 

McConaughey plays Rick Wershe, a single father who is struggling to raise two difficult teenage kids. The opening scene shows him bringing his son, Rick Jr. (Merritt), along to a gun show. Rick Sr. makes a living by selling guns illegally, and that is how the FBI ensnares Rick Jr. The federal agents convince him that he can save his father from jail by slithering into the crack cocaine network that infects his neighborhood. Young Rick quickly gets in much too deep, but when he is shot by one of the gang members he befriends (in the film’s most effective scene), he has a chance to break free. But he’s become too hooked by the lure of easy money, and he even draws his father back into the drug ring, with disastrous results.

The film has a few polemical points to make about the hypocrisy of the war on drugs in the Reagan era and about the harsh sentencing laws that destroyed many young lives. Demange said in an interview before the Telluride Film Festival, “The drug laws decimated the African-American community.” But here the film falters, not just in dramatic terms but in a deeper moral sense. There are a lot of African-American characters in this movie, but almost none of them comes alive. The film is so focused on the two white protagonists that all the black characters are reduced to little more than malignant supporting players in the main characters’ saga.

The script by Andy Weiss, Logan and Noah Miller fails to rise to the challenge of the subject by marginalizing all of these black characters. Rick Jr. seems hypnotized by the idea of having black friends. (He also fathers a child with a young black woman.) But most of Rick’s cronies are very sketchily defined, and fine actors like RJ Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and the Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here) have almost nothing to do. Compare the treatment of the African-American characters in Moonlight, another movie about crack cocaine addiction during the '80s — the texture and depth of that film are sadly missing here.

That said, the script fails to do justice to any of the supporting characters, white or black. Bruce Dern has a couple of funny moments as young Rick’s grandfather, but both he and Piper Laurie, as his wife, are essentially reduced to walk-on players in this family saga. Similarly, Eddie Marsan is completely wasted as the local drug kingpin. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as the two FBI agents who recruit Rick have more screen time, but their characters are equally shallow.

That leaves the two leading actors who portray the troubled father and son, and McConaughey and Merritt provide the movie with its only real distinction. McConaughey disappears into his role and convinces us that for all of his inadequacies, Rick Sr. genuinely cares about his two children. (Bel Powley, the star of Diary of a Teenage Girl, has a few affecting moments as his drug-addicted daughter.) Young Merritt also finds depths in his character; he is at once vulnerable and deeply jaded. The only problem with his performance is occasional unintelligibility. (The sound mix of the movie could definitely be improved.)

Astonishingly, at the age of 17, Rick Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment for possessing a large supply of cocaine. An end title informs us that he was finally granted parole in 2017, but he has not yet been released. This may well have been a gross miscarriage of justice, but the film never succeeds in turning this legal travesty into a meaningful or moving human drama.

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Matthew McConaughey Talks Working with Newcomer Richie Merritt in 'White Boy Rick' | TIFF 2018

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Brian Tyree Henry, RJ Cyler, Eddie Marsan, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie

Director: Yann Demange

Screenwriters: Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, Noah Miller

Producers: John Lesher, Julie Yorn, Scott Franklin, Darren Aronofsky

Executive producers: Georgia Kacandes, Matthew Krul, Ari Handel, Michael J. Weiss, Christopher Mallick, Logan Miller, Noah Miller

Director of photography: Tat Radcliffe

Production designer: Stefania Cella

Costume designer: Amy Westcott

Editor: Chris Wyatt

Music: Max Richter

R, 111 minutes