Vikram Gandhis college years biopic is a plotless yet compelling look at a nascent power, with a startling good central performance
Where are you from? is usually a simple question to answer. For Columbia University transfer student Barry, it means a deep breath followed by a lot of explaining. Mostly Honolulu, hell say, but also some years in Indonesia, where his white mother from Kansas still lives while the black father he barely knows is over in Kenya. New to New York, Barry (the film) is about Barry the man figuring out just who exactly he wants to be.
Theres the commonly cited cinematic theory from Alfred Hitchcock, which differentiates surprise from suspense. An unseen bomb under a table explodes brings surprise, but if the audience knows it is there and watches it tick, it creates the setting for suspense. We in the audience know this good natured and clearly intelligent kid will get out of his funk. Hell drop the nickname and revert back to Barack. And we also know that the budding romance between Barry (played with striking depth by Australian newcomer Devon Terrell) and Charlotte (the charming Anya Taylor-Joy) wont last. Its one of the weirdest examples of Hitchcocks bomb theory, made even stranger with the recent release of that other Young Obama movie, Southside With You. When will the self-doubt end and the devotion to public service begin? It makes for oddly compelling viewing.
However, much to director Vikram Gandhi and writer Adam Mansbachs triumph, Barry would still work if this were a piece of fiction and not about the future two-term president of the United States. The movie is rich on its own as a character piece about the difficulties of being bi-racial, especially at the very specific location of Columbia University. This remarkable campus, with a list of important graduates a mile long, is just a few minutes walk from Harlem, the historically African American community that, in 1981, had far worse issues with crime and poverty than it does today.
Barry is usually the only black kid in his class, and while he is rarely confronted by outright bigotry, the micro-aggressions are everywhere. When not reading Ralph Ellison and WEB Du Bois he plays pickup basketball, and he doesnt exactly fit in with that crowd either. His girlfriend Charlotte, certainly more mature than he, seems unfazed by any of the usual pitfalls of mixed race, but Barry still lacks the self-confidence to deal with the perceived stares from both the black or white community. When he visits with Charlottes Connecticut family he puts on a bit of an act, like proudly listing his fathers accomplishments, while privately resents his absence. A visit to the nearby projects begins like an anthropological excursion and ends in humiliation.
There isnt much in terms of actual plot in Barry, but each of its scenes are quite well-observed, given room to breathe and are hesitant to hammer their message over your head. The love story is sincere, and theres also a great deal of humour. If nothing else, Barry saddened me that we never got to know Obamas mother, Ann Dunham, in real life. In the few short scenes shes got, Ashley Judd plays her as a vibrant old hippie with a sharp tongue and little interest in self-censorship. Had she lived she would have been 66 when Obama was elected president, and, if nothing else, one hell of a Barbara Walters interview guest.
Barrys first roommate at school is played by Ellar Coltrane who, at least at this stage in his career, is still the kid from Boyhood to me. Vikram Gandhi (whose previous feature, the manipulative quasi-documentary Kumar, is awful) shares a bit of Richard Linklaters light touch. Whereas the inferior Southside With You ultimately becomes an exercise in deifying our young Chicago community organiser by projecting our aspirations about him onto a blank character, Barry is a real movie about real problems, that just happens to be about a real person. Its final scene, one of the more perfect in a film this year, settles on something Barry-soon-to-be-Barack will be very familiar with: hope.