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Movie Review

Lots of teens get jobs. They flip burgers. They serve as tour guides. Some sell coupon books in front of grocery stores.

But when it comes to part-time gigs, Ricky Wershe Jr. is a bit of an overachiever.

He got his entrepreneurial spirit from his pops, Rick Wershe Sr. (naturally). For most of young Ricky's life, he's watched his father buy guns and resell them for a profit—sometimes including a handmade silencer in an upsell. Eventually, the older Rick wants to quit the gun racket and open up his own VCR store—cutting edge stuff in 1984. But for now, his business in bullets'll have to do.

The rest of the world is filled with sheep, Rick tells his 14-year-old son. "Not you and me, Ricky."

And so Ricky, sporting just the barest of whiskers on his upper lip, begins to prowl the streets of Detroit.

Ricky begins selling his daddy's guns to a neighborhood drug gang at age 14. Not long after that, the FBI rolls by and asks Ricky if he'd like to start buying drugs for them—you know, to gather evidence and stuff. When he says no, they ask again, reminding him that they could send his pops to prison. So Ricky decides to takes this second gig, too.

Two jobs? With rival companies? That's a lot to put on the plate of a young man like Ricky. Something's got to give. Naturally, he quits school (not that he went much anyway) and decides to devote his full-time attention to a gang led by Johnny Curry, who's treated Ricky almost like a son and whose own son, Boo, is Ricky's best friend. Curry offers everything his own father could never give: money. Women. Glamour. A sense of stability, even. Why, Curry and his gang feel almost like a family—more like one, at least, than he's known for a while.

Sure, he rats on that adopted family on occasion with the Feds, but it's not like he'll ever get caught.

Will he?

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

Yeah, young Ricky's moral compass has lost its sense of direction. In fact, Ricky's whole family is pretty messed up. But both Ricky Jr. and Sr. believe that, as faulty as their family might be, it's still worth loving, treasuring and—if possible—reconstructing.

We see that instinct most readily in their relationship with Dawn, Ricky's strung-out sister. She leaves Rick Sr.'s humble abode early on and nearly vanishes altogether, lost in a haze of drugs. But Ricky keeps ties with her and even tries to coax her back. She refuses to return: She can't stand her father, which tears at Rick Sr. something awful. But one night, Rick and Ricky steal into the junkie house where Dawn's staying and physically take her away—Rick Sr. carrying his screaming, flailing daughter to safety. It's a heartbreaking scene, but it sets the table for reconciliation.

Ricky fathers his own little girl before the movie ends—obviously not a positive in itself, and he never marries the girl's mother. But he does take some responsibility for the child, buying groceries for her and her mother, and trying (under some very difficult circumstances) to be a part of his daughter's life. Both daughter and mother are accepted and welcomed into the Wershe household (such as it is), and we see them attend what Rick Sr. labels a family gathering.

Ricky's grandfather makes pancakes for Ricky's grandmother. (Alas, she doesn’t like pancakes and never has.)

Spiritual Content

Some members of Ricky's posse wear crosses around their necks. During a trip to Las Vegas, Ricky decides to buy a flashy chain of his own. But he doesn't understand the religious significance of the symbol dangling from the chain—a Jewish Star of David—and his father expresses mock surprise to see that his son has "converted."

Sexual Content

As mentioned, Ricky fathers a child. We see him and the eventual mother get to know each other during a drive-in movie. He promises to "take it slow," but she doesn't seem to care. They begin to kiss before they fall out of view of the camera. It seems to be little more than a one-night stand, though.

Later, Johnny Curry takes Ricky and the rest of his crew to Las Vegas, where a clearly unattached Ricky ogles (underwater) the backsides of some women clad in thong-type bathing suits. Ricky and Johnny's wife, Cathy, covertly eye each other as well.

Later on during their time in Vegas, Johnny, Ricky and others go to a strip club, where we see several topless women onstage.

Ricky and Cathy eventually have an affair. We see the two begin to make out before the camera looks away. When Ricky comes home the next morning, Rick Sr. tells him (using crass, more direct language) that he can smell his apparent lover on him. (It's an observation that the next moment in the film suggestively reinforces.)

Rick and Ricky catch Dawn making out with her drug-dealing beau in the Wershe family home. She's without pants (though wearing underwear), he's without his shirt, and Rick Sr. demands that he "zip up" before he leaves his house. Dawn begins running after her boyfriend, through the neighborhood, in her panties.

Violent Content

Johnny Curry's ego takes a hit when he goes to Las Vegas, ostensibly to watch a championship boxing match, where he finds that tickets meant for him and his entourage have already been given away. (We see footage of the match, by the way, including the loser staggering away after a TKO.) Johnny's furious at being excluded from the fight: Later that night, he takes a champagne bottle to the face of a rival (who apparently got his tickets). Though the blows take place off camera, we see Johnny bring the bottle down repeatedly and, afterward, watch as several folks drag the bloodied body away.

Back in Detroit, Curry orders a hit on the guy he thinks double-crossed him. The assailants leap out of a car and pour bullets into the home, but the target isn't there. Who is? The man's two young sons, one of whom is shot and later dies.

One of Ricky's friends shoots him in Ricky's own kitchen, then runs out. Blood stains Ricky's sweatshirt, and he falls to the floor. Later, we see him in the hospital in surgery, the operating doctors' and nurses' hands covered in blood.

We see photographs of other victims, too. One of them shows a picture of a dead man who was shot twice in the back of the head. The FBI shows two other pics to Ricky as well—people the agents believe are still alive—but Ricky tells them they've both been dead for some time. Ricky and Dawn fire several shots at someone who's stealing the car Ricky was driving (a car he himself "borrowed" from his grandfather without his permission.) Guns are pulled, pointed and brandished.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 125 f-words, about 30 s-words and a slew of other profanities, including "a--," "b--ch," "b--tard," "d--n," "p-ss," "pr--k" and "n---er." "G-dd--n" is about 30 times, and Jesus' name is abused thrice.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Dawn is nearly wrecked by drugs. We see her stoned and glassy-eyed, her face showing the wear that drug use has inflicted upon her body. She dates a drug dealer and, when he leaves her, winds up in a seriously depressing drug den.

Rick Sr. literally carries her out of the den and takes her back home, locking her in her room as she detoxes. It looks horrific: She writhes and screams and vomits. And for a while, every time her father walks into her otherwise locked bedroom to bring her food, she tosses the food at him and at the wall. Her wall seems stained with countless meals before she calms down, but she does eventually get clean.

The FBI, the film suggests, pushes Ricky into the drug trade, asking him to buy from various drug houses in the neighborhood. They encourage him to start selling drugs, too—pushing a massive brick of cocaine into his hands and telling him he can keep all the proceeds from his sales. We see him manufacturing crack cocaine with others in the family kitchen.

After his work with the FBI is through, though, Ricky picks up the drug-dealing vocation himself. After years of struggling and watching the Wershe family fall apart, Ricky believes that selling drugs is a way they can all improve their lot. And even though his father is dead set against it at first (in part because he saw what it did to Dawn), he eventually agrees. Ricky becomes a neighborhood drug kingpin, the movie suggests—even to the point where he drives around in a car with a vanity license plate that reads "Snow-Man." He's later busted with several pounds of cocaine in his possession, which earns him (under the sentencing rules of the day) a lifetime sentence in prison.

We see people smoke marijuana and drink wine, champagne, beer and lots of other alcoholic beverages. Many of the imbibers are underage. Characters smoke cigarettes, too.

Other Negative Elements

After Ricky is shot, he's forced to relieve himself through a bag attached to his gut. We see him empty the bag into the toilet: His father suggests they rinse out the bags and re-use them, since they cost $3 a pop.

Rick Sr. is a legally licensed gun dealer, but the FBI is well aware that his homemade silencers are not legal, and they could get him sent away for some time. He deals with some sketchy buyers, too: Rick strong-arms one such seller into giving him some knockoff AK-47s at a reduced rate after the dealer tries to sell them to 14-year-old Ricky. Rick also has guns stashed all around his house.

Ricky drops out of school (though he later promises his father he'll return). The government seems to make the Wershes some false promises. People, including underage kids, gamble and go to nightclubs in Las Vegas. Corruption, the movie tells us, is rampant in 1980s Detroit: "If you're not on the take, then you get your a-- took," someone says.

Conclusion

White Boy Rick is based on a true story and, from what I can glean, the movie's a fairly accurate portrayal of it. The real Rick Wershe Jr. was indeed a gun peddler, a drug dealer and an FBI informant before he was old enough to vote. He really did advertise his illicit business on a vanity license plate. And he really was thrown in the slammer for life.

Well, not quite, perhaps. True, he's remained locked in the Michigan prison system longer than any other nonviolent offender, the movie tells us, while many of his more violent, checkered associates have already been released. But just as White Boy Rick was being filmed, Wershe received a parole hearing. He may soon be released—by Christmas of 2020, according to some. That release won't come in time to catch his titular movie in theaters, but maybe it'll be on Netflix by then.

Not that he needs to rush out and see it. While this movie may arguably have focused newfound attention on Wershe's prison sentence, the movie itself is no great shakes. The characters sputter profanities faster than an AK-47. The seaminess of Rick's world—the drugs, the violence, the sex—can feel bleak and assaulting. And though it's not as long as Wershe's stint behind bars, the movie can sometimes feel like it—and this despite a strong performance by Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey, playing a father who knows he could've and should've done better by his kids, provides what limited moral depth White Boy Rick has to offer. And perhaps if the story concentrated more on him, there'd be something more to this ultimately forgettable film. As it is, the filmmakers don't seem to know what story they really want to tell, or what point they really want to make. The result? This movie feels messy in every which way.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Richie Merritt as Rick Wershe Jr.; Matthew McConaughey as Richard Wershe Sr.; Bel Powley as Dawn Wershe; Jennifer Jason Leigh as FBI Agent Snyder; Brian Tyree Henry as Detective Jackson; Rory Cochrane as FBI Agent Byrd; RJ Cyler as Rudell 'Boo' Curry; Jonathan Majors as Johnny "Lil Man" Curry

Director

Yann Demange ( )

Distributor

Sony Pictures

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

September 14, 2018

On Video

December 25, 2018

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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