Detroit in 1984 isn’t the best place to be 14. That’s especially true if you live in a single-parent household with a crackhead sister and the single parent is a gun dealer who makes his own silencers in the basement. That’s illegal, by the way, but then so are most of dad’s gun deals. Egyptian knockoff AK-47s, anyone?
Oh, and the FBI is putting the squeeze on you — yes, at 14 — to become an informant.
That’s the basic premise of “White Boy Rick.” It’s based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr., who was, yes, the youngest informant in bureau history. “Teen Beat Scarface” doesn’t exactly sound like a promising setup for a movie. Add in the fact that the actor who plays Rick (Richie Merritt) is making his screen debut, and the role has to carry the picture.
So the big surprise about “White Boy Rick” is how well the movie works. It’s one thing to know a story is based on nonfiction. Being made to believe its plausibility is something else. “White Boy Rick” you believe. When Rick rides his Sting Ray (the bike, not the sports car) to a nearby rollerdrome run by a drug kingpin and pulls out of his knapsack one of those AK-47s as a sale sample, it may look crazy but it feels just right.
Race matters a lot in the movie. The title tells you that. Rick gets his nickname from an African-American drug dealer. In a weird way, the nicest thing in the movie is how the Wershes, who live in a mostly African-American neighborhood, just fit right in. In what have been several months of race at the movies — “Sorry to Bother You,” “Blindspotting,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Kin” — this skanky tale of a collapsing, all-but-lawless Detroit may be the most racially encouraging: that is, in the way people get along, even when (especially when) the getting along is on the wrong side of the law.
“White Boy Rick” takes place over several years. The sense of time passing contributes to a deeper sense of wreckage piling up. Director Yann Demange uses lots of jittery handheld camera. The movie looks anxious and unstable. That’s OK, since the story’s that way, too. Bad things keep threatening to happen, and some actually do.
The visuals impart a nervy energy. So do the actors. Merritt, as noted, is very good as Rick. He nicely conveys the swagger, cluelessness, and, yes, innocence of the male middle teens. He even has that awful non-mustache mustache that adolescent boys cultivate. Even better is Matthew McConaughey. What a pair Rick Sr. and Jr. are. “Most people are lambs, Ricky,” father tells son. “Not you and me: We’re lions.” He really does believe it, too.
McConaughey’s combed-back hair and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding mustache emphasize the narrowness of his face. He looks like a ferret masquerading as a sexy hatchet. Back in 2012, with “Mud” and “Magic Mike,” McConaughey reached a new level as an actor: post glamour, full sleaze, ready for pretty much anything. Six years later, he’s still there. “What can I say? I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy,” Rick Sr. says. The way McConaughey says it you laugh at your own peril.
The excellence of the cast doesn’t stop there. When you notice that Bruce Dern plays McConaughey’s father, you might think, “Hey, these guys know what they’re doing,” and you’d be right. Piper Laurie plays Dern’s wife, and she’s right up there, too. The great Jennifer Jason Leigh plays an FBI agent with a superbly sour authority. Best of all, even if he gets only three scenes, is Eddie Marsan as the world’s lamest drug dealer. There are many strange, highly implausible things in “White Boy Rick.” Marsan’s character is certainly the strangest and close to the least plausible. As with the movie, though, you go with the performance.
WHITE BOY RICK
Directed by Yann Demange. Written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, Noah Miller. Starring Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, Eddie Marsan. At Boston theaters and suburbs. 110 minutes. R (language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, brief nudity).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.