by Rob DiCristino
In just a few weeks, the presidency of Barack Obama will come to an end. Many op-eds will be written on his legacy. Many economists will evaluate his policies. Many racist grandpas will gleefully ride the proverbial atom bomb into the scathing hellfire of the Trump Administration. The rest of us will huddle in bunkers and remember a time in which we embraced complex world issues and invited cooperation, when we were inclusive and empathetic, a time when healthcare was a right and women were people. We’ll talk about the way we elevated high-minded political rhetoric and how our neighbors challenged us to be our best selves. For many of us, Barack Obama set these examples. His is the most American of stories, and Vikram Gandhi tells its opening chapters in his new film, Barry. While it falls short of the truly memorable biopics, Barry is a fascinating look at an American icon in a moment of crisis, a peek into the defining years of a man who would define a generation.
To begin: Devon Terrell is masterful in Barry. Due respect to Parker Sawyers’ portrayal in Southside with You (an empty film with its heart in the right place), but Terrell rises above mere imitations of affect and posture to truly separate Barry from Barack. He’s the same man — same walk, same smile, same ticks and cadence — but still growing into himself. We see it most in the moments he shares with his mother (Ashley Judd, playing the whip-smart hippie Ann Dunham equal parts maternal and naive), when the sheepishness really comes out, when we get to see the stone-cold Spock we know waver a bit. Barry’s Barry is still feeling himself out, playing up his postured, charming “whiteness” with Charlotte’s affluent parents while letting his diction slip a bit with his friends in the projects. No matter the circumstance, we can always see the mental wheels turning. We can always see how much he’s leaving unsaid. Devon Terrell seems to know how lucky is he to have a range of emotions to play with and manages to elevate some very good material.
It’s also a story of fathers and sons, as Barry struggles to reconcile his father’s abandonment with his own sense of purpose. So much of his story is defined by where he comes from (track the variations on his answer to this question over the course of the film) that he’s never sure whether to embrace his past or push against it. How do our parents’ sins reflect upon us? At what point do we let go of old grudges and start taking new risks? There’s a great bit where Barry goes to Charlotte with his tail between his legs and she tells him that not everything is about him; not everything is about his inner turmoil, and he’s going to miss out on a lot of opportunities if he makes it his entire life. These are the parts of Barry that really work, the really smart moments that avoid overdramatizing and instead trust the audience to project their own faults and insecurities onto the character. Unlike Southside with You’s blunt and obvious box-checking approach to the Obama legend, this one embraces nuance for a much more interesting result.