Thursday, June 30, 2011

In Theaters: "Terri"

Our first real indication that all is not right with Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is when we see him trudging off to school in his pajamas. It’s not a one-time thing; he does it every day. They’re just comfortable, you see. It’s not a decision that’s going to enrich his already unfortunate high school existence; the overweight teen is a frequent target of harassment and bullying, called “Grimace” or “Trash Heap” or worse.

Azazel Jacobs’s Terri captures, more than any film in recent memory, the sheer depression of dragging yourself through the day at a school where you do not feel that you belong. Patrick Dewitt (who wrote the screenplay) remembers the soul-crushing heartlessness and despair of those daily interactions, of being the outcast, the oddball, the misfit.

But what is most admirable about Terri is its lack of sentimentality, particularly with regards to its leading character. The filmmakers don’t make Terri laughable or oafish—but they refuse to paint him as particularly wise or exceptional either. He’s just a normal, socially awkward kid with some problems. He doesn’t have any friends. His only family is a sick uncle (Creed Bratton from The Office, in a surprising and serious performance), whom he cares for. His life is so uneventful that an outbreak of mice in the attic becomes a major event.

His frequent tardiness at school brings him into the sights of assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald—played by John C. Reilly, who lights a fuse on the movie. Mr. Fitzgerald attempts, usually without success, to be both stern and cool (or what he perceives as “cool,” anyway). His bravado is based mostly on slogans and platitudes; Reilly’s laughs are mostly borne out of the character’s utter cluelessness, but he doesn’t push that angle into caricature. “Life’s a mess, dude,” he tells Terri, solemnly. “But we’re all just doin’ the best we can, y’know?”

Their relationship—a connection is made, Terri discovers that Mr. Fitzgerald lied or blew smoke, they fall out—threatens to get repetitive, but the narrative then spins off into an entirely unexpected direction. Terri sees gorgeous fellow student Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) engaged in a bit of in-class foreplay, and soon others notice and it becomes a school scandal. But Terri tells Mr. Fitzgerald that Heather wasn’t exactly a willing participant, saving her from expulsion, and ends up one of the few people who doesn’t shun her after the incident. Heather takes a bit of a shine to him, and invites herself over to his house. Chad (Bridger Zadina), another of Mr. Fitzgerald’s “special kids,” finds out about this maybe-date and turns up as well, with a bottle of booze and a hard-on.

The extended scene that results becomes so awkward, it’s almost unbearable—it’s like watching a car wreck in agonizingly slow motion. But it doesn’t unfold in the manner expected, either; Dewitt’s smart script knows a thing or two about all three of these characters, and how they would interact under these circumstances. Director Jacobs lets the scene go—he resists the urge to tighten it up, to make it snap, deciding instead to let it play to its full discomfort. But in a strange way, all of the film’s peculiarities and peccadillos seem to be pulling in to this focal point.

Some people don’t go to the movies to feel that kind of distress; Terri is not the film for them. It’s a strange picture, and isn’t always easy going—there are moments that feel, a bit too transparently, like the filmmakers being uncompromising just for the sake of being uncompromising. But I admire the film’s refusal to be cuddly or easy. It mirrors, in many ways, its title character: it’s gonna wear its pajamas because it wants to, and doesn’t really give a damn if that bothers you or not.

"Terri" opens tomorrow in limited release.

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