Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: Barry

by Rob DiCristino
“The world is a big place, honey. You’ll find your way.”

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.
Barry (Devon Terrell) sits in a courtyard, admiring the grandeur of Columbia University. A security guard approaches him — this is private property, he says — and Barry must move along. Barry kindly explains that he’s a student. About to be, at least. He’s new here. It’s 1981, and Barry is alone. Physically, emotionally, existentially, Barry is alone. His parents…well, you know that story. But Barry hasn’t lost faith. He’s here to find himself in the only way that any of us know how: go to school, meet new people, and try to learn something. In the weeks that follow, he’ll room with Will (Ellar Coltrane), hang with Saleem (Avi Nash), and maybe even fall in love with Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy). But right now, he’s got to move along. He’s not Barack Obama just yet. Right now, he’s just Barry, and he has no idea what that means. Barry is black, white, Kenyan, Hawaiian, Indonesian, Californian, and none of the above. He’s the Invisible Man. A blank slate. Everyone and no one.

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.
And it is good. Adam Mansbach’s screenplay never reaches the dramatic heights of the JFKs or Capotes of the world, but it is thoughtful and well-conceived in a style befitting its subject. This is not the Obama of grand gestures and rousing speeches. This is an insecure and conflicted Obama slipping in and out of the spaces between race, gender, and class. He doesn’t fit in with the trust fund kids or the dope fiends. Rich white liberals and black street vendors patronize him in equal measure. Everyone around him seems to have a pre-constructed identity (burnout, activist, Wall Street banker), but no such path exists for him. He’s forced to experiment, to see his neighbors sneer at his white girlfriend and to feel the crushing embarrassment of being accidentally tipped in the men’s bathroom at the Yale Club. Despite all this, the film takes great care in avoiding clear and obvious villains (not even the dickwad who tells Barry to “get over” slavery is completely irredeemable), a wise move that preserves the narrative’s integrity. This is the story of all of us, and we’re all just people. It’s how Barry learns to walk among us that matters.

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.
Barry isn’t going to win any awards. None of the performances are showy enough to earn acclaim, and many of you will find it a bit underwhelming. That’s fine. But it’s a story that might sneak up on you if you give it a chance. It’s an opportunity to reflect on what connects us while we listen to all the noise about what divides us. It’s a reminder that great struggle usually leads to even greater insight and inspiration. It avoids clichés where it can and shoots for something more than the mindless stenography that makes most biopics feel like homework. In the coming years, we’ll spend a lot of time trying to better understand who Barack Obama is and what he means to us. Barry shows us what he had to go through just to understand what he means to himself. “I’m from a lot of places,” he tells a young kid over a game of horse, “but I live here now.”

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