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‘White Boy Rick’ mostly interested in exploring gritty family dynamics

“White Boy Rick” has a potentially flashy story to tell. After all, on the mean streets of 1980s Detroit, Rick Wershe Jr. was an illegal gun dealer at 14, a well-paid FBI informant at 15, and a drug kingpin by 17. But the movie does its best to tamp down the flashiness. This is in no way a Motor City “Goodfellas.” It’s ultimately a very somber and grim tale of a family trying to stay afloat, while working both sides of the law.

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By the time he’s a teenager, Rick Jr. is a full-fledged member of a dysfunctional family. That strained dynamic is in full view early on when a heavily armed Rick Sr. (played by Matthew McConaughey) confronts his daughter over her drug-dealing boyfriend in front of her grandparents.

“You realize you’re the worst father ever?” the daughter says.

“I’m not going to let you ruin your life, Dawn,” Rick Sr. says. “No drugs in the house … Put on some pants. We’re going for custard!”

As the daughter descends to full-time junkie status, 14-year-old Rick Jr. begins helping his father up-sell guns to the African-American drug lords who are more or less running the city. He earns his nickname because he’s practically the only white boy to hang out with the black gang members.

At age 15, the Feds force him to become an informant — the youngest in FBI history — in exchange for keeping his dad out of prison on gun charges. He’s not only given money to buy drugs, but also given drugs to sell and ultimately his undercover work helps break up a major drug operation.

But after a suspicious gang member shoots him in the stomach, almost fatally, the Feds back off and he’s left to his own devices to make his way in the world.

With his sister a full-on drug addict by this time and his father barely scraping by, Rick Jr. pleads with his dad to let him do what he now knows best — dealing drugs.

“Look at this, dad. Look how we’re living,” Rick says. “Let’s hustle big. I know the players and I know their game. Now come on, dad. I could do this. We can do this. We can fix our lives and be a family again. What do you say?”

At least according to this movie, White Boy Rick becomes a drug kingpin in a bid to keep his family intact and free it from the blight that was 1980s Detroit. What gives the film such a melancholy tinge is that things don’t quite work out the way Rick Jr. envisioned.

To its credit, the film seems more interested in exploring gritty family dynamics than in glamorizing the spendy ways of drug-dealing high-rollers.

More time is spent on a harrowing nighttime rescue of the junkie daughter/sister, for instance, than on a flashy trip Rick Jr. takes to Las Vegas.

The only problem with this approach is that the actor who plays White Boy Rick doesn’t project any kind of inferiority. Director Yann Demange purposely wanted to cast a non-actor of the exact same age as the real Rick Jr. and 15-year-old Richie Merritt fit the bill. He thought that would make for a more naturalistic performance. But Merritt is mostly blank stares. This may be authentic to some degree. After all, Rick Jr. is barely a teenager and he’s doing his best to simply absorb the world whirling around him.

But authentic or not, if the audience can’t get into his head, it makes it tough to care all that much for him or his family. “White Boy Rick” has the integrity to not sell out, but it doesn’t have the depth of character to make it a truly insightful drama either.

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