An Interesting Story Centered on its Least Interesting Character
DIRECTED BY YANN DEMANGE / 2018
So what makes for a good movie protagonist? If we’re going to follow someone’s story over the course of two hours or so, what makes that person’s story worth following? Interesting, funny or exciting events can involve us in a movie for a short while, but if those events don’t occur around a compelling protagonist, someone whose story we want to see, we won’t be fully invested in a movie and will quickly lose interest. Movies need to be centered around characters who have an active role in the story. They need characters who have goals, needs and desires and who then work to achieve them. They may not always be successful, and they may not always want what they really need, but these characters act, and through their actions they shape the movie’s story.
White Boy Rick is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr. (played here by Richie Merritt, in his feature film debut). Rick was a 14-year old kid in Detroit in 1984 when he got caught up in an FBI investigation into Detroit’s street gangs and their connection to the city government. Working initially as an informant for the Feds, Rick later started dealing for himself and eventually gained a rep as a prominent drug ‘kingpin’ all before he turned 16 (this much is revealed on the movie’s posters- so no spoilers here!).
As directed by filmmaker Yann Demange (his last feature was ‘71 from 2014), White Boy Rick looks great, has a good performance from Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar), but it doesn’t work as a screen story. The writers simply chose the wrong character to center the film around. Rick, Jr. is much too passive a character to be a compelling protagonist. He doesn’t have any goals or aspirations at the beginning of the movie, nor does he make any decisions on his own that impact the story in any meaningful ways. All of the major turning points in the movie occur as a result of choices other characters make. This pretty much relegates Rick to bystander status in what should be his own story.
The writers simply chose the wrong character to center the film around.
Contrast that with McConaughey’s Rick, Sr. Dad is a single father trying to hold his fracturing family together. He has hopes for a better future, and is working hard to achieve those goals. His dream is fairly quotidian- he wants to open a video rental store- and the way he goes about trying to achieve it- making money first from illegal gun sales then later drugs- is immoral and illegal, but at least he has a vision, and a plan for realizing it. The writers- Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller- didn’t pick up on the true protagonist for this story. Rick Jr. may have gotten all the headlines, but the real story should have been more firmly centered on his dad.
Besides, it’s hard to see what anyone sees in Rick. As the movie presents him, he’s just a dumb kid. He doesn’t have any great insights, or evince any sort of cleverness. Yet somehow he ends up in the inner circle of a high-level street gang- one whose connections reach all the way up into the Mayor’s office. This is why the movie keeps insisting it is based on real-life events (the poster says it is based on THE true story, while the movie’s title claims it is A true story- I side with the latter, as I’m sure there’s more than one true story). Rick’s ‘rise’ to power would just be too unbelievable otherwise. Rick is an example of both the Peter Principle and White Privilege in action (one of the black characters even chides him at one point for recklessness, saying that if Rick got caught, he’d do ‘white boy time,’ while if any other member of the gang got caught, their punishment would be much more severe).
I really want to like this film more than I do, but I never connected to it.
Technically, the film looks great. The nighttime streets of Detroit are voids of darkness illuminated only by solitary sickly pools of orange sodium lights. Daytime is hardly better, being cold, blue and perpetually cloudy. The movie takes place over the course of 3 years, and I’m pretty sure the sun never comes out once. When the movie briefly shifts locations to Las Vegas, the sudden explosion of the color and lights of the strip are like a shock to the senses, as I’m sure they would be to a kid who has only known the worst parts of Detroit for his whole life.
With a stronger script- one either centered on Rick’s dad or one that made Rick himself more of an active participant in his own story- White Boy Rick could have been a great film. It got so much right in all other areas- the photography, the lead performances (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie show up as Rick’s grandparents), the soundtrack- that I really want to like this film more than I do, but I never connected to it. In a very large part, that’s because its main character seems so disconnected from it all too.