FANTASIA 2020: Fried Barry is Freaky Science Fiction by way of Grindhouse

From the moment I read the synopsis for Fried Barry and caught the phrase “acidic, piss-soaked cinematography with lo-fi visual effects,” I knew I was going to have to check it out. The older I get, the more I seem to appreciate weird shit, and Ryan Kruger’s debut film based on his 2016 short. Think the premise of Starman, but replace Jeff Bridges on a cross-country trip through the U.S. with a grizzled heroin addict in the dark alleys of Cape Town.

Said heroin addict is the titular Barry (Gary Green), whose affinity for shooting up has left him indifferent to his wife Suz (Chanelle de Jager), his young son, and pretty much anything that doesn’t come out of a needle. When Barry is suddenly abducted by an alien ship, he returns he’s no longer really behind the wheel of his own body. One of the aliens has psychically possessed him, and as alien-Barry traverses the late-night Cape Town streets he gets a crash course in life on the fringes with freaky sex, drugs, and desperation while also leaving his own unique imprint on those he meets along the way.

While this is Kruger’s first foray into feature films, he’s got an extensive resume directing music videos in South Africa, and those sensibilities are on full display here. From the opening frame, there’s a kinetic feel that doesn’t let up until the credits roll. And in blending sci-fi and exploitation elements, Kruger produces an aesthetic that is somehow both beautifully colorful and disgustingly grimy. This unlikely combination is truly front and center during the most memorable alien abduction sequence I’ve seen since Fire in the Sky. But instead of focusing on the horror of the situation, Fried Barry leans more into a psychotropic experience with hints of Altered States. But be warned: it’s a sequence where anything that can get probed, does get probed.

And the surreal energy only continues as Barry returns from his abduction with an extraterrestrial stowaway steering the ship. The alien is a bit of a passive observer, so he allows himself to be nudged into all sorts of situations where characters introduce him to drugs, one night stands, prostitution, homelessness, crime, and even a brief stint in a mental institution.

An interesting note about Kruger’s approach is that rather than scripting out all of these encounters, he mapped out basic arcs in terms of where he wanted the story to go, and allowed his cast the opportunity to collaborate as to how they got there. On one hand, I appreciate the improvisational nature of how these scenes play out, and I think that patchwork feel plays to the atmosphere that Kruger is going for as he portrays this slice of life through the eyes of an alien. 

But my biggest gripe with the movie is that there’s actually too much going on, and we don’t get enough time to sit with most of the characters. There’s potential to really dig into what makes these people tick, and we do get that to some extent through Barry’s wife, Suz, but overall the relentless pace means that most of these people are stock characters. When some of those characters include black pimps, cross-dressing prostitutes, and patients at a mental hospital, the movie veers dangerously close to stereotype territory, which is a missed opportunity when even just a few additional beats of nuance could have explored the humanity in groups of people that so often go overlooked.

But while the supporting cast may not always get to extend beyond one or two notes, our boy Barry brings a surprising number of layers to the film, which is particularly surprising considering A) he’s got at most five or six lines in the entire runtime and B) actor Gary Green had no formal acting experience. With only a few gigs as an extra and a stunt man before being cast as Barry in the short film a few years ago, I’m glad Kruger took a chance on him for the feature version as Green is pitch perfect as an alien perplexed by a strange world around him and doing his best to assimilate as much as possible (with mixed results). I suppose it doesn’t hurt that Green looks like he very well could be both a heroin addict and an alien, but at the same time he’s got such a compelling visage that you kinda can’t help but be captivated when he’s on screen.

When all is said and done, Kruger’s debut makes for a pretty entertaining acid trip of a ride. The hints at subverting our views on people we view as seedy or undesirable made me wish the film had taken those conversations further, and to some degree the film had the feel more of a series of freaky vignettes than an overarching narrative. But even so, none of those vignettes were boring, and if an alien were going to take one of us for a joyride, they could do a lot worse than choosing old Fried Barry.

Bryan Christopher
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