Early in Nadia Hallgren’s “Becoming,” star and subject Michelle Obama explains why she made the time during her breakneck book tour to attend a series of small gatherings with young women. Most of her interactions, she says, are “sanitized,” and the former First Lady can’t help but want to spend time in situations not entirely engineered for her comfort. Viewers of Hallgren’s first feature, a glossy behind-the-scenes look at Obama’s life after the White House (and on an emotional and occasionally draining tour across America), will likely walk away with the same desire. While the film’s star and subject is never less than dazzling, even her most inspiring moments can’t obscure a paper-thin exploration of a remarkable life in transition.
At first, the movie comes across as something of a companion piece to Obama’s autobiography of the same name, the New York Times bestseller from which Hallgren’s film borrows its title, “Becoming” eventually collapses into oddly disjointed storytelling. The first act follows the former First Lady and her team as they embark on a busy book tour, complete with stadium-sized gatherings that feature Obama in conversation with a variety of heavy-hitting moderators (the film opens with Oprah Winfrey introducing her to their hometown Chicago crowd, that’s how starry this thing is). Packed with enough behind-the-scenes shots of Obama and her team winding their way through heavily guarded underground tunnels, it’s almost enough to convince viewers they’re getting a real peek behind the curtain. Almost.
The smaller gatherings with a selection of teenagers — young women who are in their own process of becoming, as it were — add a more personal touch, as do a number of emotional scenes featuring Obama interacting with a various fans. That alone would be a fine, if unnecessary, cinematic addendum to Obama’s still-top-of-the-charts book that easily shows off her grace and warmth, but the film resists staying settled in that amiable lane. That, however, doesn’t mean it ever pushes into tougher material, instead becoming an unfocused collection of concepts that could all inspire their own films.
Is “Becoming” about the book tour? The book itself? Obama’s life? Or what’s next for her? At under 90 minutes, Hallgren’s film doesn’t have the time to truly dig into those deeper questions, instead hopscotching between concepts that are only held together by the force of the former First Lady’s grace and good humor. Fans of Obama and readers of her book will likely enjoy seeing many of her best stories brought to life, and moments in which her journey is allowed to be more unpolished — scenes with her mother and brother are especially compelling, as is a visit to her childhood Chicago home — are some of the best “Becoming” has to offer.
Hallgren’s narrative occasionally turns away from Obama to explore other people in her circle, mostly long-time employees like her chief of staff, head of security, even her stylist (Meredith Koop, whose philosophies on dressing the former First Lady could be spun of into its own fascinating film). And yet even those interviews remain firmly centered on their own (glowing, understandably) interpretations of their employer and friend.
The same can be said of the former First Daughters, as both Sasha and Malia appear only briefly to chat about what they hope for their mother’s future (eldest Malia does make another appearance after watching her mother speak, a loving and emotional sequence that adds real life to the film, albeit briefly). And yes, the former President of the United States is there too. Barack Obama pops up for a charming visit in the midst of the tour, neatly edited in alongside his wife’s disarming recollections of their early days. These more revealing bits are in sadly in short supply.
And yet it’s hard to blame Obama and Hallgren for what they are willing to put on the screen. In the latter half of the film, Obama opens up about some of the more painful moments in her life, with a fascinating exploration into the wounds that early campaigning inflicted on the entire family. Remember what that was like? The news cycle constantly shouting that the Obamas were terrorists who hated America and only wanted to bring it down from the inside? Michelle remembers, and as she carefully explains how it changed not only the ways she acts but the very ways she lives, it’s difficult to demand that she simply expose more of her life just to feed a hungry audience.
The disjointed nature of the film does have one upside in that it hints at what might become of Obama’s life now. Her meetings with the younger generation, all built around her deep belief in the “power of gathering,” give way to tangential sequences that shift focus to the teenagers themselves. Obama herself explains that her hope is to no longer be at the forefront of change, instead passing ideals and dreams over to the next generation. The best, she believes, is yet to come. Watching “Becoming,” you want to take her word for it.
“Becoming” will start streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, May 6.