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Review: ‘Barry’ is the amiably low-key, mostly imagined portrait of the man who would be president

‘Barry’
Devon Terrell and Anya Taylor-Joy in the movie “Barry.”
(Netflix)
Film Critic

Spend enough movie time with a youthful Barack Obama and one thing will be perfectly clear: That young man was a heck of a heavy smoker.

“Barry,” the latest pre-presidential Obama biopic, takes place a few years before the recent “Southside With You,” but both depict a young person who went through cigarettes at such a ferocious clip he could have given Smokey Bear fits.

“Southside” featured Harvard Law student Obama and examined his first Chicago date with future wife Michelle, but this film is set some half a dozen years earlier in a city far away. 

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That would be New York in 1981, when Obama, then calling himself Barry, transferred from our own Occidental College to Columbia University  in Manhattan to finish out his undergraduate education.

Written by Adam Mansbach (best known for the hit children’s book “Go the … to Sleep”) and directed by Vikram Gandhi, “Barry” is very much in the bildungsroman tradition, the story of a young man’s formative years when he takes the first steps toward figuring out who he is.

Though its undeniable that we would not be as interested in this tale if Barry’s last name was Schwartz instead of Obama, that we are happy to be in effect eavesdropping on the man who would move from 142 W. 109th St. to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., “Barry” does have stand-alone virtues.

One is the casting of Australian actor Devon Terrell, who starred in Steve McQueen’s short-lived HBO mini-series “Codes of Conduct.” He gives Obama the kind of grace he must have had even as a 19-year-old while making his uncertainty and experimentation equally convincing.

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This Obama is very much an earnest guy and more than a little square, someone definitely not as worldly as his biography as a young man — who was raised in Indonesia and Hawaii as the son of a Kenyan intellectual and a Kansas mother — would have you believe.

In some ways, “Barry” the film takes its personality from Barry himself. Always pleasant and companionable but a little pro forma in its early going, it gains in texture and interest as Obama’s life and his reaction to it get more complex.

Our hero is first encountered on a plane to New York, reading a letter from the father who has not spent much time with him. “There are things you can only learn in a city,” he reads. “Don’t be distracted. Focus on your goals.”

Obama’s first few days in this particular city are marked by rookie mistakes: he misses his subway stop, can’t get into his apartment, gets barked at by junkyard dogs and gets hit up for cigarettes by neighborhood roughnecks. 

After crashing for one night with Saleem (Avi Nash), a bartender friend from Occidental, Obama finally connects with roommate Will (“Boyhood’s” Ellar Coltrane) and gets into the routine of Columbia life. 

Aside from a brief stop at a political science class, “Barry” pays only lip service to its subject’s academic career. The learning he will be doing will be almost completely extracurricular.

The young man’s first connection is with basketball, as he frequents pickup games at nearby Morningside Park and acquires the nickname “Invisible” because his courtside reading of choice is Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man.”

Not surprisingly, Obama finds time to connect with a girlfriend, a composite, apparently, of several women the future president dated. Her name is Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy), a smart person who challenges some of his preconceptions. 

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Mostly, however, “Barry” shows the future president in an exploring mode, lamenting the absence of Columbians of yore like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and checking out various scenes while worrying that he fits into none of them.

This search does lead to some interesting moments, like the unexpected arrival of mother Ann Dunham (Ashley Judd), a party in the nearby housing projects, and watching Barry take a deep breath and turn on the charm with Charlotte’s posh Connecticut parents.

Though the filmmakers did what research they could into their subject’s Columbia life, little is apparently on the record about those days. Which means that much of “Barry” is an educated guess about what specific experiences he might have had.

Given that, one of the best things about “Barry” is that it doesn’t hammer us with its points. Director Ghandi makes sure the tone stays low-key, the way the future president himself would have liked it.

===

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Playing iPic, Westwood. Streaming on Netflix.

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