There are so many reasons for the movies’ recent fascination with Barack Obama’s formative years — this summer saw the release of “Southside With You,” a chintzy rom-com that chronicled Obama’s idyllic first date with his future wife — but chief among them is the feeling that he’s the first modern President who feels like a real person. Which is not to say that Bill Clinton is an android or that George W. Bush is (necessarily) a stack of hay that’s been stuffed into a business suit and enchanted by a vengeful wizard, but that Obama came to lead America in large part because he is America, a one-man melting pot whose vagabond life was driven towards a singular destiny. He knows what it means to be an outsider in this country, to be rejected for attempting to make good on the promise of his homeland. He did drugs. He went to Film Forum. He didn’t make every decision based on how it might affect his political career. And, once upon a time, he went by the name “Barry.”
New York City, 1981. 20-year-old Barry (Devon Terrell) is on a flight circling above New York City at night, a letter from his distant father in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. A curious and contemplative kid who’s transferring to Columbia University for his (quite fateful) junior year of college, Barry is tucked away in a window seat, the camera having to reach around another passenger in order to see him. A light-skinned black man with the kind of closely trimmed afro that doesn’t call attention to itself, he’s at once both visible and invisible — he can pass everywhere, but feels as though he belongs nowhere.
Wandering through the quad on his first night in town, he’s ejected from the premises by a campus security rent-a-cop who refuses to believe that Barry could be a student at such a prestigious institution. Later, when a friend takes him to a party in the projects, Barry moves through the jaundiced concrete hallways like a tourist. Whenever he goes out with his new girlfriend, Charlotte (“The Witch” star Anya Taylor-Joy, so vivid and feeling that you’d never assume her character is a composite of Obama’s college paramours), he’s either the only black person in the room, or she’s the only white one.
At least, the future President feels that way — he’s constantly confronted by notions of race, even when they’re not weaponized against him. He’s never afforded the privilege of putting his skin color aside for a second. “Why is it always about slavery?” a white classmate asks in response to something Barry says in philosophy class, blithely unaware that he’s answering his own question.
Directed by Vikram Gandhi (a fellow Columbia grad of color), “Barry” is obviously a fair bit more serious-minded than the year’s other film about Young Obama, and — in sharp contrast with the twinkle-eyed, cartoonish “Southside With You” — it treats its title character like the real person that he is and always has been. Barack Obama is a mythical figure in his own time, but Barry is just a kid trying to figure things out. He has a shitty apartment. He has a Pakistani roommate (the charismatic Avi Nash), who has a serious cocaine habit. He has a dad somewhere in Kenya, and a half-written letter to him in his wallet. And Terrell’s performance makes all of these things feel like the moving parts of someone who’s in the process of becoming his own person.
A newcomer and a natural (and an Australian!), Terrell almost singlehandedly elevates “Barry” from a cutesy time capsule into something a bit richer and more alive. While inevitably borrowing some of Obama’s mannerisms (a lot of low grumbles between thoughts, a lot of words that flick up an octave on their last syllable), the young actor sidesteps cheap imitation in favor of presentness — Terrell bears more than a passing resemblance to the man he’s playing, but the real testament to his performance is that he appears to look so much more like Obama as the film goes on and we get to know his character.
Gandhi’s subtle and astute direction helps to nudge that along, his camera seeing Koch-era New York through the same lens of probing intensity that defined Barry’s perspective. The compositions (as well as the characters who occupy them) are flashy at some times, and purely functional at others. When Barry visits the projects, Gandhi follows him through the oppressive corridors in a long-take Steadicam shot that palpably conveys the sense that the college boy is entering — but not integrating himself into — another world. When Barry goes to see “Black Orpheus” with his mom (Ashley Judd), Gandhi reverts to the most casual medium shots in the world.
If only the film’s script evinced the same degree of sensitivity. Written by Adam Mansbach (whose claim to fame is the gimmicky “children’s” book “Go the Fuck to Sleep,” and for whom this project is an ironically #woke change of pace), “Barry” may pose as sober and searching look at a future world leader, but that that doesn’t stop it from unfolding like a “Shakespeare in Love” for the greatest political story of the 21st Century. You know those photos of a college-age Obama smoking under a fedora? Charlotte takes those. You know how Obama campaigned on the premise of “Change you can believe in?” It was Charlotte who asked him, “Do you not believe in change?”
Of course, that the film is so cheesy wouldn’t be as much of an issue if it weren’t so didactic about it. It’s one thing to show how young Obama was caught between two races, but it’s another to linger on his first encounter with a trans woman until you can all but see the lightbulb going off above his head. It’s one thing to show how young Obama struggled to negotiate his blackness, and another to (repeatedly) stage an agonizingly on-the-nose sequence that starts with a street vendor selling him a copy of “The Souls of Black Folks,” and ends a few steps down the block when a group of militant black Christians call a passerby a “white bitch.”
“Barry” loses its way when it reduces itself to a tacky diorama of its protagonist’s inner turmoil, and it does so frequently enough to dismantle any sense of narrative momentum. Here is an urgent testimony to the power of pluralism, a movie that uses the story of a bi-racial man to argue that being American means not having to pick a side, means not having to be white or black at the expense of being anything else. And yet, in failing to be both a biopic and an examination of America’s dividing lines, “Barry” never manages to be the change it wishes to see in the world.
“Barry” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.