RELEASE DATE: December 16, 2016 (Netflix)
DIRECTOR: Vikram Gandhi
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 104 minutes
We are in the twilight days of Barack Obama’s presidency, and it seems safe to assume that there isn’t a single major aspect of his life that hasn’t been extensively researched or, at the very least, repeatedly referenced.
Earlier this year, the film Southside with You dramatized the first date between him and the future first lady on a balmy Chicago afternoon in the summer of 1989. And now we have Barry, which goes back even further, to the start of that decade, and speculates on his days as a student at Columbia University. The film is coarsely sympathetic and genuinely interested in developing its titular character but never breaks through the boundaries of feeling relentlessly stale in execution. It doesn’t venture beyond the most time-worn of biographical and storytelling formulas, leaving a thoroughly unmemorable and mediocre result.
Devon Terrell stars as the president-to-be who, at the start of the film, has arrived in New York City, having just transferred from Occidental College in Los Angeles. Drastic geographical diversity is not a new aspect of his life – after all, he was born in Hawaii and spent his formative years in Indonesia. Barry, as he calls himself at the time, finds the global nature of his upbringing a unique factor of his budding identity. This becomes even more relevant as his father, who is an economist for the Kenyan government, writes to him for the first time in years.
In this new city, Barry finds himself in new scenarios – whether with PJ (Jason Mitchell), a fellow student from an impoverished background, or Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy), a girlfriend who comes from a family of affluent white liberals. It’s this exchange of differing stories, experiences and lives that leads to him learning more about who he is, in addition to learning about others and reconciling a varied past with the challenges of the present.
Director Vikram Gandhi and writer Adam Mansbach work diligently to prevent Barry from being a film of needless prophesying, allowing the story to operate as less of a portrait of the president as a young man and more of just a portrait of a young man. However, this leads to a problem, as the movie can’t quite figure out how to format itself otherwise. The script does little more than create a series of opportunities for Barry to hammer out discussions of his early years and then apply them to different situations.
For example, references to various works that may have shaped a young Barack Obama are brought forward in semi-constant streams. He reads Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. His nickname among his peers becomes “Invisible.” He has a conversation with a street-corner bookseller about Ellison and how the writer lives not too far from they’re standing. The plot of the book is later described to another character in such a way that it mirrors the internal conflict in Barry’s psyche, as someone who feels that he doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. It’s cut up and overt to a fault.
This happens again when his mother, Ann (Ashley Judd), visits town and they catch a screening of Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus. He is captivated and conflicted by it, but the film utilizes this idea in an oddly detached way, more as a springboard for a later conversation between mother and son, which could have been started through many other means. This event seems to be ostensibly based on an anecdote that Obama has written about, but the script fails to appropriately place it within the plotline, and it feels as forced as anything, indicative of Barry’s inability to stray beyond the limitations of its own self-set chamber biography parameters of when, why and how.
Yet above all of this is Devon Terrell, who overcomes the frequently choppy and flat screenplay he has been given. He avoids the mistakes that could have come from being a largely unknown actor playing one of the world’s most famous living people. This is complex, lived-in and finely tuned acting. Terrell has the mannerisms and the vocal pattern down but has also given real consideration of what each point of his character’s life means and how it would affect him at this stage of development. It’s a fully thought-out interpretation, and his ready ability to play off his co-stars holds Barry together on more than one occasion.
This makes it all the more disappointing that the rest of the film can’t catch up to its cast. Barry is a movie that can’t reel everything in and keep hold of it. Gandhi, who deserves credit for his dedicated efforts, is able to assemble talented actors and shoot them in nice, aesthetically pleasing ways but never gives anybody very much to do in terms of working beyond the most basic of commonalities and concepts. Everything feels like it has been assembled in precariously easy packaging, cutting a tense juxtaposition between the ambitious urge to tell this story yet presenting it so unambitiously.