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“White Boy Rick” is a compelling character study and period piece

True crime stories usually like to focus on the rise and fall of someone we know in our hearts is due justice. We may like him or her, but there’s never a doubt that prison is deserved. With the new film White Boy Rick, opening in theaters this weekend, things are different. Watching a teenager be set up and then go down is not what you normally get. And yet, that’s the story being depicted here. It isn’t always particularly easy to watch, but the heft of the tale is never lost on you. Especially in the final scenes, the cost stays with you.

The movie is a biographical drama/crime story, though one more focused on characters. This is the official synopsis on IMDb for the film: “The story of teenager Richard Wershe Jr., who became an undercover informant for the FBI during the 1980s and was ultimately arrested for drug-trafficking and sentenced to life in prison.” Teenage Richard (Richie Merritt) and his father Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) go from selling guns to the son being recruited to inform for the government by Agents Byrd (Rory Cochrane) and Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It’s not your traditional rise and fall tale, as the family also must deal with a drug addicted daughter/sister in Dawn (Bel Powley). Richard Jr. just wants to fix his family, but life has other plans. Yann Demange directs a script from Logan Miller, Noah Miller, and Andy Weiss. Supporting cast members here include RJ Cyler, Bruce Dern, Brian Tyree Henry, Piper Laurie, Eddie Marsan, and more. Cinematography is by Tat Radcliffe, while Max Richter provides the score. Among the A-list producers, Darren Aronofsky lends his name as well.

Strong performances across the board make this a flick to recommend. Best in show, though not nearly in it enough is Powley, who is a force to be reckoned with. Also under used is Dern, who mostly ends up being comic relief. McConaughey is strong here in what actually is more of a supporting role. Frankly, Merritt is the least impressive here, though considering he’s a first time actor, it’s a praise worthy turn overall. Demange has a number of strong shots throughout, suggesting he’d in fact be a very solid choice to direct the next James Bond outing, if it does indeed come to pass. It’s easy work to admire.

Oscar wise, White Boy Rick may be a tough sell for the Academy. A campaign certainly will be launched, though a nomination anywhere may be a long shot. Still, expect to see efforts made in Best Picture, Best Director (for Demange), Best Actor (for Merritt), Best Supporting Actor (for McConaughey), Best Supporting Actress (for Leigh and/or Powley), Best Original Screenplay (for Miller, Miller, and Weiss), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing. If anything was going to happen, it would be McConaughey in Supporting Actor, if he sticks with that category designation. More likely though, the movie will just come up a bit short all around.

Starting tomorrow, audiences can see a pretty well acted character study when White Boy Rick opens in theaters. Though I’d have liked to have seen more for Dern and Powley to do here, McConaughey is very good and the power of the story takes over before all is said and done. This may not ultimately be an Oscar movie, but regardless of that, it’s still compelling. Put the Academy Award talk out of your head and just look at it as a bit of cinema. In that way, the film does really succeed. Take a look and see what you think…

Be sure to check out White Boy Rick, starting its theatrical run this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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