November 3, 2011

Azazel Jacobs’ Terri has all of the elements you’d expect from a reasonably low-budget American high school outsider indie.  Many of these films are content to trade out the mainstream tropes for slightly more alternative ones, using non-commercial elements and treating them with an honest sensitivity to give us a slightly more “realistic”, but hopeful, ending.  In fact, recounting the basic elements of Terri, one can have a pretty good sense of where it’s going to go.  The main character is an overweight high school student that lives with his clueless and goofy uncle.  There’s an awkward but well-meaning assistant principal, a strange and annoying skinny friend, and a pretty blonde with problems.  Even incident wise, there’s nothing particularly radical about it.  Difficulties with bullies, an unexpected connection with a crush, and a night of alcohol and drug induced self-discovery are all present.  As ever, it’s in the execution that this type of film will succeed or fail, and Terri succeeds to such a surprising degree that it might just be one of the best films of the year. 

Thanks to Patrick DeWitt’s excellent writing and newcomer Jacob Wysocki, Terri is possibly the most fascinating, fleshed-out American teenager depicted on screen in a long time.  We enter his story long after life started doling out tragedies.  He doesn’t know anything about his parents and he lives with his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), whose absent-mindedness stems, we learn, from the onset of senility.  Terri is so accustomed to bullying that he just wants the taunting to hurry up and finish so everyone can get on with the day.  He’s begun to wear pajamas to school, not as an act of defiance or as a self-conscious quirk, but because he’s simply comfortable in them.  The defense mechanisms he’s developed have finally cemented themselves into his personality, and though he’s not entirely comfortable with himself, he understands himself better than most kids his age.  He’s not happy by any means, but he’s not particularly sad either.  His life has exhausted him into apathy, and one imagines he doesn’t feel one way or another about it.  The pajamas, as well some tardiness, brings him to the attention of the assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who gives him a speech about good-hearted kids and bad-hearted kids before suggesting weekly Monday morning appointments with him to see how he’s doing.  The developing relationship between the two creates the spine of the story, but it doesn’t play out in a typical mentor-student fashion.  Mr. Fitzgerald makes the awkward attempts at seeming cool and wise, but he’s motivated by much more than a desire to connect with the kids or even the pure altruism of trying to help those in need.

It’s the ambiguities in the motivations that make the film as fascinating as it is.  Terri inadvertently brings to the attention of the entire class that his crush, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), is being fingered by her sleazy boyfriend.  Terri is less heartbroken than fascinated, even shyly asking the boyfriend for details in the bathroom afterwards.  When Heather is about to be expelled, Terri steps in and convinces Mr. Fitzgerald that she was forced to do it so she’s not sent away.  Far from an act of pure good-heartedness, it seems obvious that Terri did it because he didn’t want her to go rather than for her own benefit.  Even the darker actions of Terri, including leaving mousetraps in the wild so he can feed a hawk, are not played as straightforward misanthropy.  The supporting characters are similarly well handled, despite less screen time.  Chad (Bridger Zadina) is aggressively off-putting in such a way that when he reaches out as a friend it’s not surprising – nor is his behaviour in the climax over-the-top.  Bratton gives Uncle James enough hints of the man he was to save the character from being reduced to invalid status – the scene where he has a clear mind and ‘wants to take advantage of it’ by reading a book is devastating.  Crocicchia does well to suggest Heather’s acknowledgment, but lack of understanding, of her sexual power.

The real heart of the film still comes down to Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald’s relationship.  When Terri feels betrayed by his mentor, it results in honest.  Jacobs is careful to side step the pitfalls of a huge rift that’s going to be mended in a big, climactic gesture.  Terri comes back, he understands, and they work each other out.  They develop into equals in a mutually beneficial situation.  It’s their respect, and the respect Jacobs has for all five of the main characters, that carry the film.  The ending of the film, especially the last shot, could be from any good-hearted indie production, but Terri earns it more than most.  It’s never quite as sweet as you’d expect it to be, but neither is it as dark.  It’s a fine line, but it pulls off the balancing act with a good deal of honesty.


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