The name Obama is never once uttered in Barry, Vikram Gandhi’s minor-key presidential origin story. Only in the film’s final few minutes does the title character even call himself Barack—and then only in his head, reading a letter to his absent father. Dramatically announcing that some sprightly figure is actually a famous person before they were famous is an especially hackneyed biopic convention, but Barry doesn’t avoid it just to stay out of Walk Hard’s sphere of parody. It also does so because the young man we’re watching here—a smart, lonely college kid new to New York, and originally from “Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya—you name it”—is decades and miles removed from the commander-in-chief he’ll one day become. He’s not President Barack Obama yet. For the modest moments chronicled, he’s just Barry.
This isn’t the first tiny American drama of 2016 to tackle the salad days of our soon-to-be-former POTUS. Back in the summer, Southside With You dramatized Barack’s first date with Michelle, spinning the events of a single day in August 1989 into a speculative Chicago romance featuring two colleagues blissfully unaware that they’ll eventually be the first couple. Barry goes deeper into Obama’s biography, rewinding the clock to an August eight years earlier, when Barack transferred to Columbia University to study political science. It’s a different movie, set in a more cluttered metropolis and across a longer time frame, with a greater emphasis on Obama’s doubts and fears, as opposed to his mega-watt charm. But its strategy isn’t so different from Southside With You’s; both films imply that the man was shaped, emotionally and philosophically, by city life. And both play on a kind of preemptive nostalgia, drawing bittersweet interest from a nation-wide sentimentality about the imminent end of Obama’s time in the Oval.
There’s some actual nostalgia here, too—namely for the grimier, seedier New York of 1981, seen through the wide eyes of 20-year-old Barry (newcomer Devon Terrell), fresh off the train to adulthood. The real Obama had already traveled overseas and studied in Los Angeles by the time he moved to NYC. But Gandhi, working from a script by Adam Mansbach, understands that there’s no preparing anyone for the noisy, exciting chaos of the city that never sleeps. In many respects, Barry presents a fairly ordinary coming-of-age story: Moving into some off-campus shithole on the west side, Barry balances school against his budding romance with a classmate, Charlotte (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy). He also parties, plays basketball, and buries his nose in seminal works of black literature (including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, from which he earns his nickname on the court). Maybe a political consciousness stirs, too, awakened by Jesse Jackson on the radio and an impromptu tour of the projects.
Terrell, in his screen debut, successfully mimics some of the vocal patterns of the living legend he’s portraying; one imagines he scored this plum gig at least partially by virtue of being able to do a decent Obama. But his performance isn’t a sketch-comedy imitation, even if Barry does cover the same life passage as a particularly inspired Key & Peele. This Obama is too shy, too internal, to deliver anything resembling a rousing address. Terrell plays him as a sharp, polite, and occasionally moody young man, especially once his relationship with Charlotte begins to crumble under the weight of their cultural differences. (It’s obviously no spoiler that the two don’t live happily ever after.) By depicting Barry as a fairly normal twentysomething dude—weaseling out of meeting the girlfriend’s family, clamming up about his feelings—the actor and the film itself sidestep hagiography. Barry doesn’t so much offer glimmers of the man Obama would become as lay experiential groundwork for his later life choices.
That includes the sense of alienation Barry feels as an interracial man in a divided city and country. “You can fit in anywhere,” enthuses his roommate (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane, providing the Richard Linklater connection the other Obama movie achieved through walk-and-talk structure). But Barry begs to differ; its drama springs from the character’s identity crisis—his difficulty in assimilating into either Ivy League academia, where white peers insist he “get over” slavery and campus cops harass him, or New York’s black community. Self-consciousness about dating a white woman pokes holes in his romance with Charlotte. And Gandhi also reveals the divide separating Barry’s experiences from those of his white mother (Ashley Judd); whereas Southside With You utilized footage of Do The Right Thing, which the Obamas saw on their first date, Barry plucks an anecdote about Black Orpheus from the president’s best-selling memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story Of Race And Inheritance.
To some extent, Obama himself potentially deserves a “story by” credit, given how much psychology, insight, and incident the film draws from his autobiography. Certainly, the book inspired some of the nested daddy issues—another way that this movie echoes its four-month-old predecessor. But Southside With You, in its sweetly featherweight manner, is a more resonant work: It simultaneously depends less on the legacy of its subject and gets closer to capturing his dignity, his intelligence, his appeal as a public figure. Here, it’s hard to shake the feeling we’re watching a nuanced but slight character study whose significance derives primarily from invisible context. In a way, Barry’s decision to withhold that weighty “Barack” until the penultimate scene is its own kind of cliché, akin to Professor Xavier finally saying “X-Men” at the end of First Class. Still, there are worse superhero franchises than the unofficial one these two movies form. Bring on more episodes of Obama: The Early Years. They’ll look like the height of crowd-pleasing escapism during the long national nightmare to come.