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Quite against the odds, there are now two good films about Barack Obama as a young man. Following the sweet and enjoyable first-date depiction Southside With Me, the consistently engaging Barry charts an even earlier period in the future president’s life, the tricky first year the 20-year-old spent at Columbia University. Led by Australian actor Devon Terrell’s convincing lead performance as a young man struggling with his mixed identity and a troubling local environment, director Vikram Gandhi’s confidently made low-budget production might stand a slightly better chance finding an audience than did Southside due to its potential with college-age viewers.
Arriving at Columbia in August 1981 as a transfer student from Occidental College in Los Angeles, Barry, as the young man was then called, was looking for somewhere to fit in, as well as trying to come to terms with his identity. With his white mother still living in Indonesia, where the youngster spent some formative years, and his father, whom he’s only met once a decade earlier, living in Kenya, Barry has no proper family or roots.
Then there’s his racial makeup, which looks to be more of a live-wire issue on the streets near Columbia and in Harlem than it has been anywhere he’s lived before. Raised largely outside of North America, he doesn’t share the experiences and mindset of most black people in the area, and some of the most startling scenes show how he was treated far more roughly by some Harlem locals, especially when he shows up with a white girlfriend, than he ever was by whites. “I fit in nowhere,” Barry says early on.
Researched by writer Adam Mansbach through as many sources as he could find, but obviously not with the cooperation of the subject, Barry absorbingly recounts a bracing period of adjustment. The very bright young man is exposed to all manner of influences: his live-in landlord, the brashly sexual and enthusiastic druggie Saleem (an amusing Avi Nash) from Pakistan; his milquetoasty white roommate Will (Ellar Coltrane, from Boyhood); and street-and-booksmart basketball buddy PJ (an engaging Jason Mitchell).
Above all, there is a bold, bright and strikingly individualistic young lady named Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy, memorable from last year’s The Witch), who makes it her business to become Barry’s first New York girlfriend. (At the Q&A for the pic at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was said that this character is an amalgam of three white girlfriends Obama had during his first year at Columbia.) Taylor-Joy gives her character a wonderfully offbeat bohemianism that would have made her right at home in Beat Generation days.
Barry lets all these new acquaintances into his life, especially Charlotte, who soon wants to take him home for Thanksgiving and more. But he’s still feeling his way, trying to read the signals from both black and white society, reading books like Invisible Man for the first time, watching the classic Brazilian film Black Orpheus and trying to be sufficiently “street” with local blacks on the basketball court and at a late-night party in the Harlem projects, where he’s brutally beaten for chatting with the wrong lady. “This ain’t my scene,” he now realizes.
Arcing over it all is the absence of his father in his life. In the opening scene, as he sits smoking on the plane heading for New York, Barry (who smokes all the time) tries to write a long-postponed letter to his father to try to ignite some sort of relationship with him, but he can never find within him the right words. And then it’s too late.
His mother (an effervescent Ashley Judd) turns up briefly, long enough to demonstrate that she’s so smart and overbearing that a little of her goes a long way; “He’s old enough to live his life,” she proclaims, then disappears. Charlotte’s old school New England parents are perhaps more accepting than one might expect, but they still can’t help but make an uncomfortable racial faux pas or two. And the campus cops’ distrust of Barry is exceeded only by the latter’s disgust with black religious and political separatists haranguing people on the street.
A bit more attention should probably have been given to Barry’s studies; as it is, we see him in class only once and it’s never discussed what he’s studying, how he’s reacting to it and what his tentative career ambitions might be. Never alluded to is the intense interest in politics he had developed during his two years at Occidental, both in the classroom and as the organizer of a trade boycott of South Africa.
Nonetheless, Barry emerges as an involving and credible portrait of a smart young man with a good deal of growing and learning yet to do. So different was Obama’s background to anyone else who has ever become president of the United States that, at moments during the film, it’s impossible not to marvel at how it actually came to pass. Only in the United States, some might say. But never before.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production companies: Black Bear Pictures, Cinetic Media
Cast: Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane, Jenna Elfman, Linus Roache, Avi Nash, Jonathan Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Judd
Director: Vikram Gandhi
Screenwriter: Adam Mansbach
Producers: Dana O’Keefe, Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Vikram Gandhi
Executive producer: Daniel Steinman
Director of photography: Adam Newport-Berra
Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Amela Baksic
Editor: Jacob Craycroft
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Casting: Douglas Abel
Not rated, 104 minutes
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