Directed by Azazel Jacobs. Starring Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Bridger Zadina, Diane Salinger. (2011, R, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 22, 2011
Stories about high school misfits form a substantial if commonplace subgenre of indie film dramas, so just by standing out from the pack, Azazel Jacobs’ Terri is already marked with distinction. Jacobs’ style is observational, and there’s actually more watchfulness than storytelling going on in this film. His well-cast characters are unpredictable, and they’re given plenty of rein to meander through the social mess that is the American high school. Terri (Wysocki) is a morbidly obese teen who wears loose-fitting pajamas to school – a sign of rebellious distinction as well as an indicator that he has given up trying to find his place within the social strata. This outsider lives on the edge of some woods in California with his addled uncle (Bratton of The Office); Terri’s parents are unexplainedly absent. Taunts from the other teens cause Terri to dread going to school and he is habitually late for homeroom. Now his grades have slipped, and that brings him to the attention of Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), the assistant principal. Reilly, the MVP of character actors, delivers a superlative, full-hearted performance as the well-meaning but generally clueless administrator who establishes weekly counseling sessions with Terri. It’s a role that could have been easily played for laughs, but Reilly manages to make us believe in the character’s good intentions despite Mr. Fitzgerald’s inability to come up with any advice more constructive than “Life’s a mess, and we all just try to do the best we can.” Lobbing a malted milk ball at his advisee is his solution to all life’s unanswerables. Terri at first responds positively to Mr. Fitzgerald’s attention until he realizes that, rather than being unique, he forms part of a subset of school misfits that the assistant principal regularly counsels. As Wysocki plays Terri, it’s hard to know exactly what goes on in the teen’s mind: He verges between wary and trustful; he’s impatient but gentle with his uncle yet demonstrates a creepy interest in dead mice that are caught in their attic traps. Terri has a kind of lumbering grace that’s intriguing to watch yet ultimately unknowable. That’s both the originality and the frustration of this movie. Its observations (given a great assist by Tobias Datum’s cinematography) are acutely attuned to various details of Terri’s life, but they also leave out broad swaths of information. As shown in his last feature, Momma’s Man, Jacobs has an affinity for stories about young men searching for their identities. Terri never finds any big answers – and it’s not even clear that he knows what the questions are – but watching him do the best he can becomes a languid study in teenage perseverance.