In the movie world, there is often a fine line between coincidence and karma. It’s not really all that hard to fathom how two filmmakers, within a year of each other, could each come up with the notion of making a kind of snapshot biopic about the young Barack Obama. Yet the fact that both movies are emerging near the tail-end of the Obama presidency is surely no accident. The time has come to take stock, and Obama, at the twilight of his leadership, with eight years of policy and scrutiny, controversy and (yes) celebrity behind him, is ripe for the kind of mythological intimacy that the movies, perhaps uniquely, can provide.
“Southside With You,” the Sundance hit that was released into theaters just two weeks ago, is a deft and observant talkathon that turns Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date into a touching political spin on “Before Sunrise.” The Barack of that movie, which is set on a single day in 1989, is still finding his way, but he’s already a precocious young version of the Obama we know: impeccable and confident, a fusion of insight and arrogance and clarity and empathy, speaking in those rolling information-age cadences.
The Barack Obama we meet in “Barry,” on the other hand (a movie set eight years earlier), is a very different sort of cat, a young man you feel you scarcely know at all, because he doesn’t totally know himself — which turns out to be the theme of the movie. As played by the canny Australian actor Devon Terrell, he’s not even Barack yet, he’s just Barry, rolling with the punches, a slightly gawky handsome angular dude with a fringe of Afro and a way of falling into pensive trances when he’s chain-smoking. Terrell nails the clipped vibe of awareness, and a youthful version of the stare, to an uncanny degree. His Barry is reasonably self-possessed, with a lot of ideas, but he doesn’t have a clue as to how they fit together. He’s not the talkative lawyer-professor we’re used to. He’s tentative, his brashness weighed down by hidden doubts.
“Barry” isn’t necessarily a better movie than “Southside With You,” which was the perfect end-of-the-Obama-era valentine. Yet if anything, it’s even more of a high-wire act — and the director, Vikram Gandhi, is fully up to it. Set in 1981, when Obama was a 20-year-old college student who moved to New York to transfer to Columbia University, the film is rooted in the murky, drifting, sleep-late-and-get-stoned-and-do-whatever nature of college life that the movies almost never get right. This one does, and that’s one reason it feels bracingly authentic.
Barry, after moving into a cruddy apartment on 109th St. and Amsterdam in Morningside Heights, glides with deceptive ease between black and white worlds, smoothing the ride with dope and alcohol. He’s a pretty good pickup basketball player, and he strolls the streets of Harlem buying copies of W. E. B. Du Bois or picking an argument with the radical Black Israelites. He also gets into a debate in his poli-sci class — about whether democratic governments have inherent moral authority (he thinks they do; the overprivileged white liberal students think they don’t). He goes to keggers with his classmates and “ghetto” parties in the projects.
The early scenes in biopics (or in written biographies) can sometimes be a curio, and often a bit boring, but “Barry,” which takes many of its cues from Obama’s memoir “Dreams from My Father,” dares to unfold as a series of atmospheric anecdotes, with barely any trace of an “arc.” It’s likely that the film won’t be in theaters until Obama is out of office, and at that point a drama about the young Barack Obama trying to nail down his identity could present a marketing challenge: How much Obama nostalgia will there be in, say, the spring of 2017? (Depending on who wins, the answer could actually be: oodles of it.) But whatever the timing, “Barry” is a good enough film — at once moving and revealing — to be its own reward.
All good biopics are time machines, and this one beams you back to the New York City of 1981, a place still strewn with graffiti and trash, with hip-hop beats and Ed Koch mouthing off on TV, but instead of signposting the iconic period flavor, Vikram blends it right in, rooting it in the slightly gloomy stasis of a city that was still wrenching itself out of its doldrums. The bars and apartments are bathed in shadow (they aren’t overlit by technology), and the rhythms are slower. It’s Barry who picks up on what’s changing: the shift over to financial culture. He’s quick to spot, and criticize, whenever someone is going for the money.
For a while, Barry, with his alternating current of black and white identification, grooves on the best of both worlds. He’s like a tall and rangy spy, a guy who makes himself fit in wherever he goes but never feels entirely at home. Sometimes, that’s because of how he looks: At the party in the projects, he gets bashed in the face by a girl’s father who resents his posh college-boy aura. But the real problem is that Barry has such finely tuned radar that he can read all the prejudicial ways that others are reading him. The racist cops who demand his ID at night on campus are one thing, but when he finds himself in more enlightened environments, he is too often, in other people’s minds, the symbolic “black guy,” and he hates it, because it depresses him. He reads Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” which gives him his hoop-shooting nickname (“Invisible”), and that’s appropriate, because the real Barry is still undercover.
Yet he does make friends easily. One of them is played with lived-in scruffiness by Ellar Coltrane, looking a poetically perfect two years older than he did at the end of “Boyhood.” Another one, whom he meets on the rough-and-tumble local basketball court (and who turns out to be a fellow Columbia student), is played with his own rascally double consciousness by Jason Mitchell, who was so good as Easy-E in “Straight Outta Compton.” Barry also lands a girlfriend, Charlotte, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who proves to be a true find. She’s the star of “Morgan” and “The Witch,” but almost nothing in those genre films (or her TV work) prepares you for the vivid presence she has here. She’s sensual but sharp, with eyes that slice through whatever she’s looking at.
Barry and Charlotte have an easy and flowingly passionate collegiate love affair; they become devoted to each other, and race is never an issue between them. Yet it is, deep down, for Barry: When he has dinner with her wealthy Connecticut parents, he turns on the charm — it’s the one time we get an embryonic flash of Obama the politician — and they’re gracious people, but he can see all too clearly that he’s an outsider to them. They accept, and even “embrace,” him, but that doesn’t mean he likes how it feels. He experiences a different version of the same thing when he goes with Charlotte to Sylvia’s, the Harlem soul-food restaurant, and feels everyone staring at him because of the white girl on his arm.
There are moments when Barry’s withdrawn, slightly haunted quality can seem like his own mixed-race version of “white people problems.” But it’s really a daddy issue: Barry is haunted by the Kenyan father who abandoned him, and while that sounds like a cliché, Adam Mansbach’s script never plays it for cheap poignance. At one point, Ashley Judd shows up as Barry’s mother, Ann Dunham, and we can see where he gets his strength and his traces of exuberance. But the hole in him left by his father is profound. You could almost watch “Barry” even if you’d never heard of Barack Obama: The movie is simply interested in what it looks like when a guy who’s got this much going for him has a piece missing. By the end, the piece is filled in, but in a suggestive and slightly enigmatic way. Barry figures out that he doesn’t have to be more — or less — than any of his identities. He can be every one of them, because that’s who he is. And that’s what America is.