Director - Vikram Gandhi
Cast - Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Mitchell, Ashley Judd, Ellar Coltrane
Rating - 4/5
Things certainly weren’t meant to play out this way. 2016 was supposed to end differently. And for Barry to come out now, mere weeks before Donald Trump is sworn in as the successor to the man it so lovingly honours, is almost poetically tragic.
But here’s the thing about great movies: Unlike a lot of other art – and art forms – the chances of a great film being forgotten, or harmed in any way by the world it exists in, are very small. And Barry is a great movie. It will always be a great movie – regardless of who the president is. No one can ever take that away from it.
I watched Barry almost immediately after watching Southside with You, another film that plucks out a very specific moment from Barack Obama’s life (in this case, his first date with his future wife Michelle).
Both films, it turns out, are quite terrific – very slight, but with a quiet power that sneaks up on you. Southside is a Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight-style romantic dramedy, which, if you’re fans of those films, you’ll recognise immediately in its warm, lazily-paced scenes featuring a young Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson walking and talking and falling in love.
But Barry - which is set a few years before the events of Southside, just as Obama is beginning his first year at Columbia University, when he first gets his hands on a dog-eared copy of James Baldwin, when he sees firsthand the lives his ‘brothers’ live in the ghettos of Harlem, and when he gets his first taste of police brutality - is even better. In fact, had it received a proper theatrical release instead of the digital one Netflix is providing it, I would be willing to wager my subscription that come January, it would have been showered with Oscar nominations.
But somehow, it’s better this way. The nook that it will forever occupy, buried 8 scrolls down on Netflix, can never be taken away. And at the very least, it’ll keep away all the controversies that would almost certainly have sprung up had Barry been a part of an awards campaign. The Alt-Right would’ve used it as a political tool in their lunatic war against the ‘libtards’. They would’ve accused it of being biased and reverential – which is exactly what it is. They’re just going to have to learn to deal with it.
But despite striking what would normally have been a very problematic tone, after a while, the story, and the nuance with which it is told, completely overwhelms all the Obama worship there may be (and honestly, there isn’t much). Director Vikram Gandhi, whom I know best as a reporter for VICE, has made a film that will be remembered not just as a ‘presidential biopic’, because it’s hardly that, but as a unique, standalone work of art.
What sets Barry apart from other films based on the lives of presidents is that it is not about the politics, but about people – in a very specific time, and of a very specific place. It is more Frost/Nixon than Nixon.
It is a college movie, a coming of age film populated with all those familiar characters – the bohemian girlfriend, the stoner roommate, parties, alcohol, bad mistakes and daddy issues. It just happens to be about a future president. In fact, it is not until its final scene that he is even called by his proper name, Barack. Because this is not a film about Barack. It is about Barry, the innocent, wide-eyed, thoughtful young man (played wonderfully by an understated Devon Terrell) looking for a place in this world, the half-black, half-white boy from everywhere, but nowhere, trying to find his identity.
Barry is for all the lost souls getting punched by strangers in strange hallways, it is for all the wanderers with nowhere to be. It captures the beautifully conflicted dumpster-fire that the world is right now like lightning in a bottle.
Watch the Barry trailer here