Directed by Azazel Jacobs
Produced by Alison Dickey, Alex Orlovsky, Lynette Howell & Hunter Gray
Written by Patrick Dewitt
Released by ATO Pictures
USA. 105 min. Rated R
With Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Bridger Zadina, Creed Bratton & Olivia Crocicchia
[this article originally appears: http://film-forward.com/terri.html]
Living in what appears to be on the border of suburbia but perhaps just across the tracks, overweight teenager Terri Thompson (Jacob Wysocki) shuffles along a sylvan path to high school in his pajamas and flip flops. Is he having one of those anxiety dreams of which we all suffer from time to time? Well, yes and no. Terri is not dreaming. As he later explains to his vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who sees the student’s wardrobe choice as a red flag, the PJs are comfortable. Bullied for his size by his classmates, Terri’s counseling sessions with the principal are a welcome escape. The friendship that ensues sneaks up on the parentless and withdrawn Jacob, who feels, perhaps, that he is finally the focus of someone’s positive attention.
“Terri”, directed by Azazel Jacobs (“Momma’s Man”), is one in a recent series of films, including Mike Mills’ “Beginners” and Miranda July’s “The Future”, to name just two, which are less hung up on traditional narratives, but haven’t abandoned cinematic aesthetics or storyline in the process. Not as dark as your typical Todd Solondz film but equally as funny, “Terri” is chock full of strongly shaped and believable characters. Mr. Fitzgerald is one example. Reilly takes what might have been a one-note character and gives the befuddled principal some actual dimension. Creed Bratton (from the American version of the series “The Office”) is another example, playing Terri’s often sedated and mentally ill Uncle James, with whom he shares a book-filled ramshackle home. Who takes care of whom is another question. Their scenes together are filled with so many realistic touches it’s easy to take the movie for granted. One early scene presents Uncle James enjoying a rare evening of clarity. As he sits at the piano playing some music, we get the sense that there once was a vibrant life inside the man.
Two other unlikely connections form with the outcast student, Chad (Bridger Zadina), who suffers from OCD among other potential disorders, and an ostracized beauty named Heather (Olivia Crocicchia). A late in the story night of debauchery among the three adolescents proves to be mercifully anti-climactic. It also turns out to be the centerpiece of the film. The scene unfolds one night when Heather is supposed to visit Terri’s home for the first time, but Chad, in his infinite need for attention, decides to join the date by locking himself in the bathroom. Uncle James is heavily sedated, and so his med collection and liquor cabinet are accessible. What transpires is an opportunity to blow off some teen angst for an evening. To his great credit, filmmaker Jacobs never moves the film into melodramatic territory or absurdist comedy.
Terri ends without a bang, but that’s only appropriate in a film filled with small, observational pleasures. Perhaps Terri has learned a bit more about how to make friends or ask out a girl. So many films, like Terri, rely on too much quirkiness and end up being little more than the sum of its parts. But this film’s biggest success is illustrating that magic may be found in ordinary moments. Of course, it certainly helps to have such an amazing find in the young Wysocki as the lead. It’s his first feature, but considering the depth of the performance, you would hardly know it.
When one thinks about how the multiplexes are filled with the likes of “The Hangover Part II” (which stars another “Office” cast member) and “Bad Teacher” (which features a third!), films like Terri really need as much attention as they can get. If the current crop of indie films is any indication of what is to come this year, we’re in pretty good shape. Whether they are seen is another issue.