An outcast's touching tale
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 15, 2011
The opening shot of “Terri,” Azazel Jacobs’s tender, observant coming-of-age comedy, does not bode well. In a sad-looking bathtub sits an even sadder-looking teenager — overweight, dejected, emanating resignation and despair — while being hectored by his addled uncle down the hall. Any filmgoer schooled in the rules of naturalistic indie filmmaking will tell you: This story cannot end well. This story, ladies and gentlemen, will end in tears.
That know-it-all would be right, but for all the wrong reasons. “Terri” turns out to be a small masterpiece of misdirection, a winsome, utterly unpredictable portrait of adolescence that flawlessly captures its cruelty and sweetness. We all know by now that high school tortures sensitive outsiders, but, together with screenwriter Patrick deWitt, director Jacobs finds brand-new ways to bring that experience to life, with an abundance of wit and compassion.
In “Terri,” the biggest heart belongs to the biggest kid: Terri Thompson (Jacob Wysocki), who as the movie opens has already endured years of being taunted at school and has now taken to coming late (when he comes at all) and arriving in pajamas. His grades also have started to slip, prompting the school’s vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), to summon Terri for a heart-to-heart amid “No Bull” signs and motivational posters. Thus commences one of the funniest, most touching screen relationships since Paul Giamatti’s wrestling coach took a skinny kid under his wing in “Win Win.”
In fact, “Terri” has more in common with “Win Win” than might immediately be apparent. Granted, the territory Jacobs visits possesses more edge, including graphic depictions of teen sexual experimentation and an encounter between Terri and his longtime crush, Heather (“Rescue Me’s” Olivia Crocicchia), that is fraught with excruciating anxiety (at least for the audience). But at its core, “Terri,” like “Win Win,” is about trust, acceptance, strength of character and that all-too-rare phenomenon of adults keeping faith with young people, even when their advice is imperfect.
And fewer guides are as bumbling as the hapless Mr. Fitzgerald, channeled with flawless fake gung-ho spirit by Reilly, who delivers the administrator’s tone-deaf pep talks with exactly the right sense of practiced sincerity. Fitzgerald lies to his student charges, including Terri, and he’s prone to sudden outbursts of inexplicable temper, quickly soothing hurt feelings with a malt ball. He calls Terri “dude” and “Ter Bear,” wears Ray-Bans and acts like a dork to ingratiate himself with teenagers who see through his shtick. Still, thanks to Jacobs’s sensitive direction, Fitzgerald earns the viewer’s sympathy even at his lamest: He’s a loon, but he’s never treated like the joke he would be in a more cynical film.
For pure heroism, though, “Terri” owes its considerable moral and physical ballast to Wysocki’s title character, who, as he navigates high school’s whine-dark seas, keeps his eye on an invisible horizon that gives him an uncannily clear vision of right and wrong. With his shambling, balletic gait and wavy shock of hair, Wysocki inhabits his character with an ineffable combination of shame, pent-up rage and the angelic grace that makes it possible for him to carefully look after his ailing Uncle James, played by a virtually unrecognizable Creed Bratton from “The Office.”
Jacobs, whose breakout film was the masterful coming-of-middle-age portrait “Momma’s Man,” proves just as dextrous here with more conventional sight gags (the legs of a kid dangling helplessly on a gym class rope while the teacher rails against Terri’s “grudge against physical education and wellness”) and even a touch of animation. Thanks to Jacobs’s observant eye and ear, “Terri” moves with the same endearing ease as its troubled but true-blue title character. You’ll never know quite where “Terri” is taking you, but you’ll be awfully grateful when you get there. No bull.
Contains sexuality and sexually explicit conversations, as well as teen drinking and drug use.