MANHATTAN WITH YOU
Review by Paul Preston
Most viewers will probably find Vikram Gandhi’s new film, Barry, about the college life of Barack Obama, challenging, because not a lot happens. Other Presidential biopics focus on a major event in the politician’s life – JFK and PT-109, Teddy Roosevelt and The Rough Riders – but according to Barry, Obama read frequently, smoked a lot and wasn’t sure where he fit into 1981 New York City. Not nearly as exciting as a war story.
In the middle of Barry is a doomed relationship with Charlotte, a white girl played by the very striking actress-on-the-rise Anya Taylor-Joy. She has appeared recently in The VVitch, Morgan and trailers for the upcoming M. Night Shyamalan film, Split. So, for those of you looking for her to smile, your movie has arrived! Charlotte is a giving, kind and beautiful young woman with horrible timing, falling for a listless Obama who hasn’t discovered where he belongs (it’s not going to be in the posh country clubs of New York).
Devon Terrell is good at acting like what we’d imagine a young version of the 44th President would be, and that’s achieved without a straight-up impersonation and the film is better for it. Taylor-Joy is excellent in what’s becoming a run on excellence and no film is bad in the moments Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) is on screen.
Barack Obama is the first modern-times President we’ve had who is a true product of America. He doesn’t come from a rich family, he’s mixed race, has complicated relationships with distant parents (Ashley Judd appears in the film as his young, outspoken, sometimes embarrassing mother) and has global life experience. That’s on display in Barry, but what’s missing is a main character passionately driven by something. Again, that’s not required in a movie (the brilliant Manchester By The Sea comes to mind, where Lee Chandler seems to be more trying more to drive everyone away), but, man does it make a movie exciting. Obama comes off a little passive in his NYC adventures, which could make you think, “where is this headed?”. We know where Obama’s path is eventually headed, but there’s no sign of his dynamic future when he’s toiling in New York.
So, the question stands, “Is that enough?”. Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no. There’s something admirable about a film allowing small moments to shape its lead character – run-ins with campus security that are obviously racially motivated, touring the run-down government housing areas where his friends live and being mistaken for a washroom attendant at a high-end club – but in the end Obama is just a tough cat to read. One thing the film gets absolutely right, if we’ve learned anything from the onslaught of attacks Obama’s Presidency has received from inside and outside of Washington, is that Obama is resilient and won’t be triggered into uncontrolled emotion. That serves him well on the streets of NY, but in this film and in real-life, I wouldn’t mind a glimpse of gloves-off Barry unloading on those who get in his face. But true to form, when they go low, Obama goes high, and I suppose to ask for anything other than a thoughtful, measured response would be to watch a Trump biopic.