Terri (ATO Pictures, R)

This is a world that feels lived-in, filled with characters that have personalities and quirks beyond their archetypes.

 

 

A fat teenage misfit breaks out of his shell and scores an unlikely friendship with his cute blonde schoolmate with the help of his funny, well-meaning assistant principal. That one sentence plot summary makes Terri sound almost painfully clichéd, but thankfully director Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man, The GoodTimesKid) and screenwriter Patrick Dewitt have set their sights far from prosaic Hollywood pap with Terri. This is a film that captures the daily life of the high school reject with such skill and lives so deeply within its characters that it can even be forgiven when it starts to lose its way as it approaches the finish line.
 
Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is the sort of misfit that fails to fit in from a basic lack of knowledge of or interest in normal social interactions, rather than any purposeful aim to be “different.” He lives in a cluttered rural house, where he has to care for his senile uncle James (The Office’s Creed Bratton), and spends his school days just trying to disappear into the woodwork. Unfortunately for Terri, he makes a big target, not only for his size (both his towering height and his hefty frame) but also for the pajamas he wears everywhere he goes (“because they fit,” he insists). The strain of caring for his uncle causes Terri’s tardies to stack up, catching the attention of Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the school’s assistant principal, who begins meeting with Terri every Monday morning to help kick off a journey to self-actualization that, naturally, only proceeds in fits and starts.
 
Though these types of stories are known for being trite and unrealistic, Terri thrives on realism. This is a world that feels lived-in, filled with characters that have personalities and quirks beyond their archetypes. No one is perfect, least of all Mr. Fitzgerald, a father figure who has the stereotypical good heart but who occasionally screws up or overreaches, making his mission to help Terri less a straight path and more a two-steps-forward-one-step-back rollercoaster. Reilly plays the role with aw-shucks sincerity, which makes his deceits as surprising and disappointing to the viewer as they are to Terri himself. Though Bratton makes a living playing a very different kind of addled old man as Creed on The Office, he brings heartbreaking sincerity to the role of James. The character of Terri is a true original, and Wysocki works wonders in bringing him to life. He looks uncomfortable within his own skin as he shuffles around in his pajamas, arms limply hanging to his side as he tries to avoid eye contact. But when he sees wonder in the world, we see it through his eyes, as in a stunning scene where Terri takes a few dead mice caught in his attic out into the woods, then watches in stunned silence as a hawk swoops down and eats the mice mere feet away from him.
 
Where the film loses its focus is when Terri strikes up an unlikely friendship with Heather (Rescue Me’s Olivia Crocicchia), a pretty, popular blonde. Jacobs and first time screenwriter Dewitt almost manage to concoct a universe where the hottest girl in school could find a connection with the weird fat kid in pajamas. First, they turn Heather into an outcast in her own right thanks to a public embarrassment that almost got her expelled. Next, they have Terri perform a sweet, kind, hilarious rescue of her honor at the very first moment in his character arc that you can imagine him capable of such extroversion and empathy. Then they build that tenuous first contact into a friendship through notes passed during class, a scene filmed with particular skill where complex emotions are captured in handwriting, hand gestures, and smiley faces.
 
But just when it starts to work, Jacobs and Dewitt overplay their hand, sending Heather to Terri’s house for a whiskey- and prescription med-fueled evening spent in his uncle’s shed with fellow misfit Chad (Bridger Zadina). The scene grinds the movie to a halt. The actors play the scene as realistically as possible, but the screenplay forces them into unrealistic places and, even more unfortunately, into situations that seem completely out of character and at odds with the arc that has been building throughout the rest of the film. Not only does it subvert the film’s intentions, but it does so at a snail’s pace, dragging on for what feels like (but can’t possibly be) about a third of its running time as Jacobs fishes for meaning in the silences between the characters. Ultimately, the scene is both boring and frustrating, and leaves the film with a muddied message that seemed much clearer not long before.
 
When the film plays it real, though, it’s pretty much unstoppable. The hell of high school is captured with almost excruciating accuracy, and the acting is so uniformly natural that the characters’ reactions always feel realistic, even when the situations they’re in are anything but. | Jason Green
 
Official website: http://www.terri-movie.com/

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