Dundalk High School student Richie Merritt makes his film debut in “White Boy Rick,” playing real-life Detroit teenager Richard Wershe Jr., a gun runner-turned-FBI informant-turned-drug dealer. The real Wershe is still in jail at age 49, the longest serving non-violent juvenile drug offender in the history of Michigan.
The movie was directed by Yann Demange (“‘71”); Merritt’s co-stars include Matthew McConaughey as his father, Bel Powley as his sister and Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as his grandparents.
Here’s a sampling of what film critics are saying about Merritt’s debut:
Peter Debruge, Variety: "The standout turn here is Merritt’s, projecting both the streetwise toughness that attracted the authorities and the kind of determination that, under different social circumstances, might have allowed for Rick to find a legitimate path to a better life."
Clayton Davis of awardscircuit.com lauds Merritt’s performance as “bombastic” and writes, “Most of (the) emotional successes of the film lie in the performance of Richie Merritt, a first-time actor that every director should look to have conversations regarding their next projects. Merritt’s natural talent and charisma bleed through his words, curly hair, and little beats, whether it’s fixing his blue bowtie or walking through a skating rink. He’s an impeccable find this year.”
Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “Merritt is an interesting find. As a first-time actor, he’s solid enough, although I’m not entirely sure this novelty adds anything particularly special to the movie, especially when McConaughey is next to him giving a whole performance. McConaughey is so good and emotionally affecting as Richard Sr., in both vulnerable and tough moments, that it might even catch you off guard.”
Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly writes of Merritt’s “naturalistically low-key performance” and says his performance “allows you to see the vulnerability beneath [Rick’s] outward swagger.”
Johnny Oleksinski of the New York Post writes that “Merritt’s no-frills style is the film’s greatest asset.”
Dana Barbuto, The Patriot Ledger: “For his debut, Merritt, who is in nearly every scene, cries on cue and aptly conveys that poignant moment in a child’s life when he realizes his parent isn’t perfect; that dad has real feelings, anxieties and makes mistakes. Merritt is borderline ineffective in eliciting our empathy because – no matter the intentions or acting – it’s hard to root for a drug dealer who continues to make bad choices, even if those actions are in the name of family. But he is effective in showing a tangible loss of innocence, which is the trajectory the character takes all the way to the big house, where he unjustly remains.”
Adam Graham, Detroit News: “Merritt, in his first acting job, has the juiciest role, but he doesn’t display the charisma that was essential to Rick’s ability to work both the Feds and the streets and thrive in both roles. He has a natural, understated screen presence, but the sizzle is missing, and he falls short of hooking the audience into his incredible journey.”