Barry premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend, putting forth a Barack Obama we’re not quite used to seeing. For one, as the title indicates, he goes by “Barry” rather than “Barack.” And while he’s still a charmer, he lacks self-assuredness. That’s because Vikram Gandhi’s film checks in on its hero (Devon Terrell) when he is newly arrived in New York and starting at Columbia, trying to figure out just where he fits in the school, the city, and the world at large. It’s not an explanation of how he became the president; instead, it’s an exploration of race and identity using one young man with a white mother from Kansas and a black Kenyan father as an entry point for those discussions.
Barry happens to be the second young Barack Obama movie that’s premiered at a festival this year. The other, Southside With You, was released in August following a debut at Sundance. That movie caught up with Obama as a summer associate confidently trying to woo Michelle Robinson, the woman who would become his wife. Both Barry and Southside have elicited a positive critical response—certainly, neither is the Jobs to the other’s Steve Jobs—and there’s another similarity. They don’t try to tackle his political legacy or aim to create scandal. In fact, they pose the sitting president as a familiar hero rather than a figurehead: In one, he’s a romantic trying to get the girl, and in the other, he’s a student coming of age.
At TIFF, The A.V. Club asked Gandhi why he thinks filmmakers are homing in on Obama’s relatable qualities. “He’s been the underdog throughout the whole time he’s president,” Gandhi said. “So much of what’s gone on as far as the deadlock in the government and so much of what’s happened is about him being black. You don’t want to believe that because you can’t believe it because it seems so fucked up. He’s still fighting this battle while he’s the leader of the free world. It continues to bring his humanity out.”
It’s fitting that we’re finding these films being put forward right now given the wave of “Obama nostalgia,” as Gandhi puts it, echoing throughout a certain part of the nation as he prepares to leave office. “There’s a feeling of, this is a decent human, like a good person being before being a great person,” he said. “I think that is something we are all going to miss. I just never imagined that we would miss him so much because I never imagined a man named Trump would ever be possibly elected.”
Barry doesn’t yet have a release date.