Not since young Abe have the early formations of an American president inspired as much moviemaking as Barack Obama’s early life.
Vikram Ghandi’s “Barry,” a snapshot of Obama as a college student, is the second of the year, following Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You,” a presidential rom-com about Obama’s first date with Michelle. These films may be just the start of the wave of Obama nostalgia to soon wash over the country (or at least approximately half of it). But the pleasant surprise is that both are fairly good, thoughtful films. The odds of this happening, while Obama is still in office, even Nate Silver might struggle to compute.
“Barry” is set in 1981 New York and “Southside With You” takes place in 1989 Chicago, but they have much in common. Both are framed as Obama prequels but use him as a prism through which to investigate race in America. They each delight in the novelty of a more human-sized version of the POTUS-to-be: smoking cigarettes, cursing and grooving to ’80s tunes. And both give a sense of a unique mind beginning taking shape. In “Southside” we see him reading Toni Morrison and watching Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”; in “Barry” it’s “Invisible Man” and “Black Orpheus.”
In “Barry,” his destiny is further away. He’s a little more Prince Hal. In early scenes, Obama (an excellent Devon Terrell) argues politics and Plato with young Reaganites at Columbia, but his interest in civic life hasn’t yet manifested. Politics, he tells his girlfriend Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy), are useless. “Come on, the president’s an actor,” he says. Later, while strolling arm-in-arm with his mom (Ashley Judd), he talks about fleeing society and becoming a monk. “Hope” is a long way off.
“Your politics are cute,” says Charlotte, a wealthy white girl from Connecticut.
To a certain extent, “Barry” shares the same superficial infatuation with a bachelor Obama. The film, written by Adam Mansbach, has bits pulled from Obama’s memoir “Dreams From My Father,” but large parts of it are invented, as are some characters.
What “Barry” most captures is an Obama struggling to find his identity and his place in the world, highly attuned to his surroundings. He walks the streets of Harlem, playing pickup basketball and perusing the books of sidewalk vendors. Where is from? The answer is complicated whenever he answers it. Hawaii. Indonesia. His father’s from Kenya. He’s harassed both by the security guards at Columbia and his more thuggish neighbors. “I fit in nowhere,” he says.
Pulling him in one direction is Charlotte, who Taylor-Joy (the breakout star of “The Witch”) plays with great tenderness. Her feelings for Barry are genuine, but her understanding of race is precocious. As the two draw closer, Barry is increasingly uncomfortable in the relationship and — as we know — he’ll ultimately reject the future she holds for another.
With much of the detail of Obama’s life from this period needing to be invented, “Barry” sometimes resorts to more clichéd scenes. In one, he’s mistaken for a bathroom attendant at the Yale Club. But much of the film’s reality — not its sometimes forced 1981 period detail but its representation of racial undercurrents — feels genuine. That’s partly due to the fine cast, led by Terrell but also including Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton”) as a friend met on the basketball court.
Given that we have two Obama dramas before the president has even left the White House, we’re probably in for dozens more. They will likely tackle larger moments in his political life, and will surely trade low-key naturalism for bigger biopic moments. “Barry” and “Southside With You,” more about the man than any myth, have done admirably in setting the stage. But their underlying optimism for the future that lay ahead, though, might already be dated.
“Barry,” a Netflix release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.