In this picture about the hard life of a teenage drug dealer in 1980s Detroit, despair hangs heavy in the air. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

Richie Merritt’s slurry-voiced performance in the title role of “White Boy Rick” is at once the picture’s greatest strength and its core weakness. The teenage, first-time actor certainly holds his own with the experienced likes of Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But at the same time, he gives the impression of being just slightly disengaged from the part, almost as though he’s spectator at the kid’s life.

The difference is evident in the contrast between his performance and those of McConaughey, as his character’s low-level gun-dealer father, and Bel Powley, who plays his drug-addicted sister. Both go full-bore into their roles. That’s especially true of Powley as a sunken-eyed, hysteria-prone junkie, electrifying in a very showy part. Merritt doesn’t venture as deep into his character, Richard Wershe Jr. 

It’s a tricky, challenging role, and Merritt is in the vast majority of scenes. The weight of the story rests on his shoulders. Age 15 when he was cast, a student at a Baltimore high school with no acting experience, Merritt was the same age as the real-life person he portrays. Director Yann Demange insisted on casting a raw young talent to lend authenticity to the picture.

Wershe Jr. was an FBI informant at 14 in 1984, a drug dealer at 16, arrested at 17 and sentenced to life in prison in Michigan for dealing 8 kilos of cocaine. He’s still incarcerated.

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He grew up in a poor, predominantly African-American neighborhood of Detroit, and all his friends and associates in the picture are black. He fits in relatively easily but also warily with them because most of them are paranoid well-armed drug dealers. It’s they who give him the nickname White Boy Rick when he becomes involved in the drug trade. 

The bond between Rick and his dad is tight but fraught. He agrees to be an informant for the Feds, led by a hard-eyed agent played by Leigh, in exchange for them not prosecuting his father for selling guns. 

The ’80s Detroit of “Rick” is a wintry moral wasteland. Despair hangs heavy in the air there. 

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★★★ “White Boy Rick,” with Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bel Powley. Directed by Yann Demange, from a screenplay by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller. 111 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity. Opens Sept. 14 at multiple theaters.