Barry opens with a young man on a plane, chilling with a cigarette (well, it is the 80s), as he reads a letter from his father which says ‘there are things a man can only learn in the city.’ When he lands and walks into his new university, he is evicted by a security guard for simply sitting there. He moves onto the rougher neighbourhood where he’ll now live and finally gets welcomed with a beer.
Set in New York City in 1981, Barry imagines what Barrack Obama may have been like in his younger years. A student at Columbia University, Barry quickly makes friends and starts to date someone. However, he feels prejudiced against on account of his mixed race. Barry has a close relationship with his Kansas-born mother, but struggles to connect with his estranged Kenyan father. Across the space of a number of months, Barry will meet people and learn lessons about himself and his country which will impact his future presidency.
It’s the little moments where Netflix’s latest venture into original (film) drama is at its strongest – when Barry is debating against someone in class, playing basketball with friends, or listening to the radio in his apartment. It captures college life well, and how it consists of an eclectic mix of friendships, romance, classes, sports, clubs and parties. New York as well is brought down in scale. This is not the big city of romance, shopping and dreaming that we’re used to seeing. It’s a lived-in place with some friendly faces, others more threatening. It’s not a fantastical place, as Barry comes to learn, but it is rich in diversity.
The cast are all capable, and Devon Terrell as the titular character is definitely the standout here. He speaks like Barrack and adapts his quirks completely naturally and effortlessly. Terrell definitely has big things ahead of him. Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays his girlfriend Charlotte, also convinces.
The problem here is not so much the cast though but rather the elements around them that falter. The music, aside from a couple of songs, is a bore. This is the 80s we’re talking about, and yet the soundtrack completely lacks any oomph.
The dialogue, meanwhile, aims to have this natural, mumblecore or Richard Linklater-esque feel, with very little actually happening in the film plot-wise. However, the screenplay is simply unengaging and uncreative, and the actors are given little to nothing of interest to say or do with their characters. It has good ideas about race and nationality, and there are moments when these power through with some emotional force, but tonally it is inconsistent and constantly changing its mind about how it wants to inspire its viewers.
Barry ultimately disappoints, for it carries potential in certain lines and scenes, and particularly in Terrell’s performance. Unfortunately it is doomed to join other Netflix movies in the overflowing pool of mediocre movies: