by Joshua WiederBarry is director Vikram Gandhi’s second film, and his fledgling, amateur directorial tendencies draw attention to themselves quite glaringly in this two-hour coming-of-age biopic about a 20-year-old Barack Obama. In the interest of fictionalization, this film makes a concerted, but subtle effort to draw a distinction between the real man and this fictional depiction. We know him as Barack, but this film knows him as “Barry.” So, what decides the success of this film is ultimately the strength of Barry’s character — how we empathize with his struggle and how we view him. There are a few glitches in the film’s formal structure and more than a few problems with the narrative, but it begs to be liked by a certain subset of people. If you are not a fan of President Obama, this movie will not change your opinion, and will likely bore you.
The film, much like Barack Obama’s presidency, is (arguably) a mixed bag. A movie like this really has to do one thing for the audience: convince us that it needed to be made. In this regard, it is a failure. It doesn’t seem like the director is overwhelmingly passionate about telling this story, as the execution is subdued, the editing is standard, the performances are fine, but never excellent, and the writing is godawful at times. The pacing lacks motivation and often winds up being dull during moments that should be transformative for young Barry. And while style isn’t lacking, it is derivative, as it is drawn from the period setting. The 1980’s NYC African-American community that we see in the film is culturally very interesting, and using this landscape as a backdrop for Barry’s coming of age is very appropriate.
Devon Terrell takes on an incredibly challenging role. We as an audience are intimately familiar with the mannerisms and tendencies of Barack Obama. For years, we have absorbed his presence as he has ridden out his two terms. Terrell had to strike a balance between subtle imitation and caricature, but he unfortunately fails to achieve consistency. Sometimes the impersonation is uncanny, and other times he falls off the character entirely. Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) plays Charlotte, Barry’s college girlfriend, and she gives a measured, qualified, and charismatic performance. Orbital characters, such as Ellar Coltrane as Will and Jason Mitchell as PJ — Barry’s roommate and acquaintance, respectively — really weaken the film, as their performances are on a level far below that of the film’s leads.
A film that isn’t overly stylized or passionately conceived is really only as good as it’s weakest facet, and in the case of Barry, that facet is the writing. The screenplay, from the basic narrative structure to the dialogue, is contrived, basic, and lazy. For a script that tackles complex ideas like race issues and a person’s coming of age, nuance is nowhere to be found. In one scene, Barry references slavery to support an argument he’s making, and a white student asks why “everything has to be about slavery.” When Barry meets his white girlfriend’s father in a restroom, he mistakes Barry for a towel boy and tips him. On several occasions, Barry verbally communicates that he feels out of place no matter where he goes because he is of mixed race. Rather than learning about and coming to understand this character, he is shoved down our throats, and ends up coming across as whiny at times. Subtlety is important when it comes to telling an intricate story like this one, but this film hits the audience over the head with its agenda over and over again. Eventually, race becomes the defining characteristic of every character in the film, and all I could see were black and white faces.
The film is saved from utter mediocrity by a few beautifully executed moments toward the end. In one moment in particular, Barry gets a phone call and receives some news that shatters his emotional state. He sinks into the background and silently sits on a couch. His roommate suddenly occupies the shot’s foreground on the opposite side, and the frame is split by the wall on which the phone is mounted. Barry’s roommate boisterously details his plans to work on Wall Street, but Barry doesn’t reply. His roommate then complains that he’s “becoming a real bore.” This moment is very effective. Barry’s crushing loneliness and isolation melt out of the composition, and I genuinely became engrossed in the film for the first time. The last 20 minutes or so are quite strong, and almost justify the slow, mostly uneventful first and second acts.
Barry is a true reflection of Barack Obama’s legacy: beautiful at best, questionable at worst, but forged with good intentions.
2.5 out of 5 stars