Telluride: With 'White Boy Rick,' Matthew McConaughey Could Score a Supporting Actor Nom

But Yann Demange's true crime tale could face challenges in mounting a best picture bid.
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
'White Boy Rick'

As can be attested by anyone who has seen the 2014 film '71 — an indie about a British soldier caught behind enemy lines in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles — the French filmmaker Yann Demange is an extremely talented guy. But his first Hollywood pic, White Boy Rick, which came into the Telluride Film Festival with considerable awards buzz ahead of its world premiere on Friday (I caught it Sunday), is going to be a tough sell to the Academy.

Like '71, White Boy Rick is a film about a young man fighting for his life on the streets. But unlike '71, there are virtually no innocent or likable characters in White Boy Rick, which purports to recount the true story of how Richard "Rick" Wershe Jr. (newcomer Richie Merritt), a 14-year-old white kid from Detroit during the "just say no"/crack-epidemic '80s, fell into trouble and, by 17, had been sentenced to life in prison without parole.

White Boy Rick, which Sony will release on Sept. 14, is never boring and, thanks to the participation of Matthew McConaughey as Rick Sr., might do well at the box office. But to make it through an awards season, a film has to be able to withstand close scrutiny, and this one will face challenges. Working from a script by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller, the film does its best to make Rick Sr. and Jr. seem like more or less decent folks who were wronged by society and the system and deserve to be admired for remaining in their community even as it crumbled around them — but the reality is that both were not-very-bright criminals who, while caring for each other and the rest of their family (Bel Powley, Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie), made their larger community much worse by illegally dealing guns and drugs, respectively, and then engaged in stupid interactions with shady law enforcers (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry and Rory Cochrane) that resulted in Jr.'s incarceration.

While the film is not wrong in pointing out that mandatory lengthy prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses tore apart many families in the '80s — something that appears to be the filmmakers' main talking point on the awards trail, based on a Q&A that followed Sunday's screening — the Wershes are not the best example that could have been used to make that argument, not least because that is a problem that has overwhelmingly affected the black community, and Jr. is the sole white person in his social circle of ne'er-do-wells. At the end of the day, White Boy Rick is less an indictment of the criminal justice system than it is an indictment of the education system in large swaths of America.

That being said, one cannot rule out the possibility that McConaughey can crack into the best supporting actor field. In White Boy Rick, the Oscar winner (Dallas Buyers Club) is playing an iteration of the same character he almost always plays — rough around the edges but nevertheless likable — and that's OK. (The same was true of Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, and people didn't seem to mind.) He may have just enough showy moments in which he acquits himself well — including one with his daughter in a drug den and a later one talking to his son on their porch — to capture voters' attention.

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