Barry, which places us in the life of a young Barack Obama in 1981 New York City, is remarkable in it's subtle, understated, and low-key approach to story-telling. Those expecting broad political declarations and the full brush of the Obama we know now need not apply. This is the story of a young, mixed-raced man trying to find himself, trying to reconcile himself with the father almost entirely absent from his life and the part of his life he thus feels he's missing out on.
Devon Terrell shines as an early college age Barry Obama. Perfectly capturing the speaking style and cadence of the Obama we know, while also displaying the feelings of not belonging, of doubt that filled this young, unsure, intelligent man. Flashes of the brilliance, of the cool and confident President we know today are there, but their masked wonderfully by Terrell's Obama, one who can't help but be plagued by doubt, one who is walking around with a mixture of disappointment, longing, and a simmering resolve.
Tracing the year from Barry's first arrival on campus, which to put it mildly goes badly, to his father's death. Barry introduces us to a bevy of different people swirling around our leading man. The star of the proceedings though and the most important to our young hero, is the budding and passionate romance he sparks with a fellow poly-sci student, Charlotte played beautifully Anya Taylor-Joy.
Charlotte, who is a composite of a few of Barack's real life former friends, is a true treat. Sparks fly from the two's first clash in a political class together, debating whether or not a democratic government has moral authority(Barry argues and believes it does) this leads to a second meeting later that night outside a party where the two are given a chance to really take stock of each other. The connection is instant. Charlotte very quickly falls head over heels for Barry, and while he feels largely the same about Charlotte particularly in the beginning, over time he is increasingly troubled by the void whether real or perceived that exists between the two due to their differing races. The slow dissolve of their bond is tinged with sadness but important to watch unfold, as Barry struggles more and more with the relationship and the differences he see's. The final shot of Charlotte and Barry together is as masterful a quite and wordless scene as any I've seen this year.
Indeed, some of the strongest moments of the film occur whenever Barry is simply trying to fit in with those around him and finds he never does perfectly. Going to a college party early on, where he is the only non-white person, he remarks it isn't his scene. Later on going to a party in Harlem with all of his newfound basketball buddies, he gets socked in the face by an angry ex of someone he's talking too, this isn't his scene he again wryly notes. This is the dominant theme of the film, one which Barry is all too painfully aware of as he tells a friend of his who notes that he's mixed race and can thus fit in with everyone, Barry simply responds that he fits in with no one.
All of which brings us and Barry back to his father. The looming shadow of the man hangs over Barry the entire film. Indeed the film opens with Barry on a plane to New York City reading a letter his father wrote to him. All throughout the film, Terrell's Barry struggles with the legacy of his father, when his mother, played by a fantastic Ashley Judd, comes to visit Barry struggles hard to understand what brought the two of them together, of where he fits in between their two radically different worlds. The film repeatedly makes mention of the fact that Barry is the son of a white women from Kansas and a black man from Kenya. What does that make him, he asks again and again to seeming no avail.
Everyone he meets along the way seems incapable of offering any answer to that question. His friends largely drift away or are pushed away by film's end, and in a illuminating scene where Barry first meets Charlotte's parents and gives us our first glimpse of a politician Barry, it's important that the scene serves as one of the most jarring and oddly off-kilter of nearly the entire film. This isn't the transformative, once in a generation political voice yet, this isn't the man who will lead America to believe in Hope and Change, he's still figuring it all out, with only the most basic of raw talent and ideals, the scene in many ways shows just how far removed he is from his future promise.
Yet, in arguably the strongest and most simple moment of the film Barry finally finds some direction, some sage words from two people he is just introduced to at a wedding in the film's closing minutes. Yet agin, he makes mention of his background, of his seemingly incompatible origins and family history. Asked by one of the guests what that makes him, Barry, dispirited and reeling from his fathers sudden death earlier in the same day somewhat bitterly replies that "no, I don't know." The simple one word answer from the dinner guest is "American, It makes you American."
Barry is not the film I wholly expected. Far more quite, reflective, understated, and low-key than I thought it would be, it is not a film about the early political origins of Barack Obama, at least not in the way you might expect. No, this is a film almost shocking in how relatable it is, the early coming-of-age story of a young man opening his eyes to the larger world and learning to deal with the legacy of his family and what it means to him. Barry is the sad, troubled, powerful, and ultimately hopeful story of how Barry became Barack and while not perfect, serves as a fitting coda to our 44th President's final days in office.