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18th of November 2018

Entertainment



White Boy Rick weaves a dark, tragic tale of misspent youth | The Star

Starring Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt. Directed by Yann Demange. 110 minutes. Opens Friday at major theatres. 14A

It’s 1984 and the crack cocaine epidemic is devastating Detroit, especially its poor Black population.

Rick a.k.a. White Boy Rick is a directionless teenager living with a dad operating in the grey zone as he sells guns (and illegal homemade silencers) and an older sister who’s been sucked into the addiction vortex. Rick also has a boyhood pal named Boo, giving him entry to an underworld on the other side of the colour divide. It’s a friendship that will end up costing him big time.

In White Boy Rick, director Yann Demange does a fine job recreating the spirit of the times — the big cars, VCRs, etc. — and creating a powerful sense of place in Detroit, a fading metropolis of rundown housing and mean streets. Aptly, it always seems to be snowing or raining.

It’s based on a true story, and there’s clearly an agenda in the subtext as federal and local police forces come down hard, using whatever means (or pawns) that come to hand. It’s also an era of extraordinarily draconian sentencing laws that will send scores of young men, mostly Black, to prison for the rest of their lives. The film makes the point clearly that Black justice and white justice are different things.

Young Rick becomes a pawn in a much bigger game, forced by federal agents to undertake “controlled buys” of drugs to identify dealers, using his father and his illegal activities as leverage. Things get progressively more complicated from there.

Matthew McConaughey is flat-out brilliant as Rick Sr., a failure as a father and provider who nonetheless has dreams of the big score and inculcates those ideas into his son, telling him they are “lions” in a world of lambs. Once again, the consequences are dire. McConaughey captures this flawed, larger than life character with dexterity.

But it is Richie Merritt as young Rick who is a genuine revelation here, capturing the essence of his character — indolent but loyal and loving — with a performance that is subtle, textured and wholly believable.

There’s some supporting work, including Bel Powley as older sister Dawn, whose struggle to return to the human fold is heart-rending, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a canny federal agent buffeted by forces way above her pay grade. Eddie Marsan is a delight in the smallish role of Art Derrick, a well-connected drug kingpin living life large.

The story is a bit circuitous and there are a lot of characters as 1984 becomes 1987, so careful attention will be required.

The outcome for young Rick is as tragic as it is inevitable.

White Boy Rick is the best kind of cautionary tale, rooted in painful truths and rendered by the filmmaker with care and authenticity.

Bruce DeMara is a Toronto-based reporter covering entertainment at the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bdemara

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