Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 20 May 2011
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2011 Independent Film Festival Boston
The high-school misfit is a familiar protagonist in indie film—possibly because a lot of creative types consider themselves misfits. The misfit who finds an inspirational relationship with a like-minded adult is a pretty familiar plot line. Like all familiar stories, this tale can become new again only if the details are fresh and the characters are true. Terri tells the story of an isolated, overweight boy who forms a bond with his assistant principal. Director Azazel Jacobs uses affecting characters, a great attention to detail, and some subtle twists to make this story real again.
Terri is a delightful character. He wears pajamas to school and takes unselfconscious joy in his weird interests while he simultaneously nurses his distressed uncle and tries to do good by his school. The film rests almost entirely on the shoulders of the actor who plays him, Jacob Wysocki. I recognized Wysocki from the recent wonderfully realistic (and lamentably cancelled) ABC Family teen drama Huge. Wysocki is an incredible talent. He manages to portray a frustrated, defeated, nearly monotone character without sacrificing charisma, and he carries himself with great maturity while preserving a teenager’s confusion and vulnerability. The rest of the cast is extremely strong, from Creed Bratton as Terri’s mentally in-and-out Uncle James to Bridger Zadina as a freak kid who manages to be both irritating and in palpable pain. The newcomers easily match chops with John C. Reilly as Mr. Fitzgerald, the assistant principal.
Though Reilly is solid, I sometimes found his style at odds with the tone of the film. Perhaps I’ve seen him in too many Will Ferrell movies, but Reilly makes such a great buffoon that it can be difficult to take him seriously. Mr. Fitzgerald is introduced as the caricature of a clueless high-school authority. He seems like he should be a foil rather than an inspiration for Terri. (The presence of Tim Heidecker from the never-serious Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! as a sadistic gym teacher doesn’t help us empathize with the film’s adults). It was hard to be completely convinced when Fitzgerald slowly transformed from phony dimwit to genuine mentor. As I’ve thought about the film, I’ve wondered if this is simply my reaction to Reilly’s familiar mug; I can’t be sure whether to credit the filmmakers with trying to give a caricature some depth, or fault them for not quite pulling it off.
Novelist Patrick Dewitt wrote the screenplay, and its literary sensibility shows. The scenes unfold in small, telling gestures, and the characters change in subtle, careful ways over the course of the story. Some scenes felt perhaps a bit on-the-nose, such as a teenage girl who is a bit too self-aware about how she uses her sexuality to alleviate loneliness, or lending Mr. Fitzgerald a strategic dose of pathos via a troubled marriage. But for the most part, the writing feels true and believable, especially Terri’s home life with his mentally ill uncle. Terri has the perfect sad naiveté of someone for whom difficulty is simply normal. (And the evocative set design of their house says almost everything we need to know about who Uncle James was when he was well and who he has become now.) Uncle James’ shifts from lucid to catatonic are heartbreaking. And the film climaxes with two excellent, extended set pieces - a drinking party with Terri and his new, if unlikely, friends, and a cathartic school break-in with Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald - that simultaneously feel real and wrap up the story in a satisfyingly novelistic way. Terri is a small and somewhat familiar film, but the careful writing and excellent cast make the story worth watching again.
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