Toronto 2016: ‘Barry,’ 'Neruda' and ‘A Quiet Passion’ put a fresh spin on biopic formula

A rare technical glitch briefly halted a Toronto press screening of Vikram Gandhi’s “Barry” on Sunday morning, muffling the film’s sound quality and rendering the dialogue mostly inaudible. Order and volume were happily restored in due course, though not until after the audience spent several minutes waiting in the dark — by which point a few viewers, either concerned about making their next screenings or taking advantage of a guilt-free bathroom break, made their way to the exits.

“Let me know if he gets the girl,” one viewer joked to her screening companion as she departed. For of course, the outcome of the love story in “Barry” is no more in doubt than its title character’s ultimate destiny. Barry, played without a hint of affectation by the Australian actor Devon Terrell, is in fact a young, college-age version of Barack Obama, and “the girl” is Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”), a fictionalized composite of three girlfriends that Obama had at Columbia, according to a post-screening Q&A.

In other words, “Barry,” which made its world premiere in the festival’s Special Presentations section, is the other Obama movie making its way into the spotlight mere months before the real Obama ends his presidency. The first one, which premiered at Sundance and is now playing in theaters, is “Southside With You,” Richard Tanne’s sweetly meandering speculation on Obama’s first date with his future first lady, Michelle Robinson, in 1989 Chicago.

That movie, with its romantic walking-and-talking structure, owed an obvious debt to the trilogy that began with Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.” Oddly enough, “Barry” has a faint Linklater connection as well: Ellar Coltrane turns up in a few scenes as Barry’s bookish, goateed roommate at Columbia, briefly transforming the movie into a sort of time-traveling sequel to “Boyhood.” (The fact that Obama singled out “Boyhood” as his favorite movie in 2014 only adds to the charming weirdness of the experience.)

Because it’s set during an earlier, more formative period than “Southside With You,” “Barry” features far less wink-wink foreshadowing, and Terrell’s performance, while no less winning than that of Parker Sawyers, has far less cocksure charisma. Barry, who reads voraciously and smokes compulsively, is constantly plagued by doubt and worry, anxious about what life and love will bring, and increasingly uncertain about where he fits in, as either an American or a citizen of the world. He has roots spread all over Hawaii, California and Kenya, a father he barely knows, and a tendency to slightly unbalance everyone he meets — whether it’s the campus cops who keep asking him to show his student ID, or the black New York locals who don’t take kindly to seeing him with a white girlfriend.

A modest production imbued with political savvy and a surprising depth of feeling, “Barry” is the rare biographical drama that, rather than giving us a bland recitation of accomplishments, takes the formation of identity as its very subject — and has the confidence to acknowledge that the process of formation will continue well past the closing credits. By addressing the life of one of the most famous people in the world, the film gets away with telling only part of the story, allowing us to make intuitive connections between past and present.

If there’s a genre of prestige filmmaking that could benefit from this kind of less-is-more approach overall, it’s the biopic, which is as reliable a staple of the fall season as Brussels sprouts (and just as nutritional in its appeal). Toronto’s nearly 300-feature program is awash in fictional portraits of real-life figures, few of which are more prominent or conventionally styled than Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” which stars a fine Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the young computer whiz who blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s surveillance.

I’ll have more to say about “Snowden” in my review later this week (it opens Friday in theaters). By then I also hope to have a word or two about “Jackie,” which stars Natalie Portman as a recently widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, and which was such a hot ticket in Toronto that a number of other journalists (myself included) were shut out of the film’s Monday afternoon press screening.

“Jackie” is the latest film and first English-language production from Pablo Larraín, who with every film seems to further cement his standing as the preeminent Chilean director of his generation and one of the leading filmmakers in world cinema. He’s certainly one of the busiest: “Jackie” is one of two biopics Larraín has brought to the festival this year, the other being the Cannes-premiered “Neruda,” which is less an ordinary biopic of Pablo Neruda than a richly inventive fantasia on the poet’s themes. It’s a bracing reminder that there are many ways to capture an artist’s vibrant essence truthfully on screen, and cleaving strictly to the historical record isn’t necessarily one of them.

As it happens, “Neruda” isn’t the only fine film about a great poet screening in Toronto this year. More dramatically straightforward but similarly playful and literate in sensibility, “A Quiet Passion” is a richly idiosyncratic portrait of Emily Dickinson from the great and newly prolific British filmmaker Terence Davies (his previous film, “Sunset Song,” was at Toronto just last year).

On the surface, “A Quiet Passion” would seem to boast all the familiar hallmarks of a 19th century chamber piece. The interiors of the Dickinson family’s home in Amherst, Mass., are exquisitely if not lavishly appointed, and Davies’ camera (the cinematographer is Florian Hoffmeister) inhabits every room with characteristic sensitivity. We don’t see Dickinson doing much writing, but expertly chosen excerpts from her work are laid over the soundtrack at significant moments.

What’s bold about the film is how unexpectedly, hilariously funny it is, as the independent-minded Dickinson — played with steely wit and piercing vulnerability by Cynthia Nixon — brilliantly deflects her family’s every attempt to tame her into social, spiritual and intellectual submission. Before it tilts inevitably toward tragedy, the film is a riotous assemblage of drawing-room banter to rival Whit Stillman’s recent Jane Austen comedy “Love & Friendship.” Yet in contrast with that film’s effervescent delivery, Davies has directed his actors to recite their dialogue slowly and clearly, in a stately, formalized rhythm that has the gradual effect of clearing the mind — of the speakers, and of the viewer.

Dickinson’s rejection of patriarchal oppression and forced piety (Davies, a lapsed Catholic, surely identifies) becomes something trenchant, laudable and deeply sad, as her exactingly high standards increasingly isolate her from those in her midst. In documenting this trajectory, “A Quiet Passion” does something precious few films about writers attempt, much less pull off. Masterfully precise in its language, its delineation of physical space and its sensitivity to its characters’ emotional and moral states, Davies’ film utterly collapses the distance between its subject’s outer and inner lives. The director’s patient, rigorous pursuit of a higher form of artistic truth merges with Dickinson’s own.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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