For someone as visible in the world as President Barack Obama, one could say, “There ain’t nothin’ about that dude, that we don’t already know.” But is that true? Is there something we haven’t seen or heard before about him? The new drama Barry (which is a nickname President Obama went by for folks who couldn’t pronounce Barack) aims to answer that question. Directed by Vice TV documentarian Vikram Gandhi and written by Adam Mansbach (“Life with Jeannie” TV Series), Barry dramatizes the president’s life as a new resident in New York City and a college student at Columbia University back in the early 1980s.
When it comes to biopics, the allure to star in a movie based on a true story — especially one of a respected historical figure — is seen as a draw for an actor. So in this case, for Australian newcomer Devon Terrell (who bears a bit of resemblance to a young Obama), it’s a big win. He manages to step up to an intimidating plate and does a decent portrayal of this nation’s first black President. However, there is an awkwardness with the delivery of his lines. Although, he tries to capture the cadences of Obama’s voice with youthful vigor, he’s not always able to speak without his Australian accent bleeding through. And if his accent doesn’t, then his dialogue almost always ends abruptly as if it were compiled from random radio sound-bites.
As a narrative there are issues too, as the plot for Barry is nearly non-existent. Instead, it relies on sprawling story-arcs from multiple characters that Obama encounters along the way. As fascinating as that sounds, its payoffs fall short, which is due to everything presented feeling haphazard. The closest thing to a main storyline is Obama’s collegiate relationship with classmate Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”). But somehow, young people getting hot and heavy, apparently, isn’t epic enough and so another dramatic storyline of Obama’s crisis of identity is also highlighted. We witness a young man who is half-white and half-black, but he doesn’t feel welcome in the white world or the black one. This helped bring some stakes to his romance and to this film since it hardly offered any otherwise.
But while the film tries to wrestle with this issue, it also exposes you to other aspects of Obama’s life that we’re very familiar with: His love for basketball, his relationship with his mother (adequately played by Ashley Judd “The Divergent Series – Allegiant”) and an estranged saga with his father. But that’s also a problem: Even when the film digs into the man, it merely touches on surface facets of Obama’s life and never gets deeper. And that has a lot to do with the film’s dramatic approach — which is to be inspired by parts of Obama’s life and not actually be based on it. This means a lot of the characters and scenes we see in the film are just made up for the sake of the story.
Now, this isn’t the only biopic to operate in this manner. But the lack of a strong main arc reduces the worth of characters like Obama’s slacker/playboy roommate Saleem (entertainingly played to the point of total annoyance by Avi Nash, “Learning to Drive”). We meet people who pop in and out of the film randomly, creating redundancy in some cases and baggage in others. This is also unfortunately true when it comes to the character who matters most — Barack Obama. No matter how stunning a movie is shot (and this film is shot well), the beauty of a coming-of-age film is when we see a character grow. Even though we know where Barack Obama eventually ends up (and here’s a clue: It’s not your local Chipotle), it’s troubling to see a movie choosing to act like it has no answers, as if Obama’s future is some great unknown.
Ultimately, Barry is a movie to catch a glimpse of fresh acting and directing talent. But the novelty of being a semi-true biopic about the early life of a man who moved a nation to become president doesn’t make it a good movie. It is, at best, a stimulating metaphorical exploration of a complex man that never fully brings the sum of its pieces together. Much like, as some would say, his presidency.