Wednesday, October 12, 2011

DVD Review: Terri

Terri *** ½
Directed by: Azazel Jacobs.
Written by: Patrick Dewitt.
Starring: Jacob Wysocki (Terri), John C. Reilly (Mr. Fitzgerald), Bridger Zadina (Chad), Creed Bratton (Uncle James), Olivia Crocicchia (Heather Miles), Tim Heidecker (Mr. Flemisch), Justin Prentice (Dirty Jack), Mary Anne McGarry (Ms Hamish).

High school can be hell if you’re different – and Terri certainly is different. He is massively overweight and shy. He also comes to school every day in pajamas – and when asked why, he tells people because they’re comfortable. His home life is a mess – his parents are both absent (he simply says he doesn’t know where they are when asked), and he lives with his uncle, who is in the beginning phase of dementia. Every day he walks to school through an idyllic looking forest, and when he emerges, and sees the school, he stops and sighs – screwing up the courage to go back to school for at least one more day.

Terri is played in a remarkable little performance by Jacob Wysocki and is about how this character moves through high school, and eventually does make meaningful connections with three people. The first is Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the principal of the school, who is one of those adults who perhaps tries too hard to be hip and “understand” his students – although his heart is in the right place. He sets up weekly meetings with Terri, and tries his best to make Terri feel comfortable, and make his life just a little bit easier. The second is Chad (Bridger Zadina), another one of those students who get called in for weekly meetings. He is small, but angry and obsessively pulls out his hair and eats it. The third is Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who was once one of the most popular girls in school – but then lets a boy finger her in home economics, and is seen by the entire class, who immediately write her off as a slut, and refuse to talk to her. But Terri will talk to her – he knows what it’s like to be ostracized.

The movie was well written by Patrick DeWitt and directed by Azazel Jacobs. This is a movie in which all of the characters seem real, and also original. I’ve never seen a character quite like Terri in a movie before, and I was fascinated by him. At a certain point, he had to decide to embrace his outsider status. He could be more normal if he chose to – just by not dressing in pajamas, and not making himself such an easy target. But in a way, he is comfortable with himself. He is called into Fitzgerald’s office, and the two begin talking – but more than that, actually communicating. We get the feeling that Fitzgerald spends most of his days dealing with bad kids – doling out punishments and yelling. After all, in all my years in high school, I never got in real trouble, and never once had a meeting with any of the administrators. But I think Fitzgerald is trying to help Terri – and the others he meets with regularly who are not troublemakers. We get only snippets of his own slightly troubled home life and at one point he simply tells Terri “Life is hard, and we’re all just doing the best we can”. It’s a simple life lesson, but if it’s one that you truly accept, there are few that are more valuable.

The scenes between these two characters are the heart of the movie, and it says something of Wysocki’s talent that he more than holds his own with an actor of Reilly’s talents. I know John C. Reilly has had a lot of success in recent years in mainstream, broad comedies like Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, but he has always seemed more comfortable and confident in smaller movies like this.

When you add in the supporting cast around these two, you notice just how well observed Terri is. Chad is the only manic character in the movie – full of nervous energy, and it’s a nice offset against the rest of the more subdued cast. Creed Bratton, from The Office, gives us glimpses inside the man Uncle James used to be, before his illness robbed him of whatever and whoever he was before. Heather is perhaps a little underwritten, but as played by Olivia Crocicchia, you feel for her and like her. When she’s asked why she let that boy do what he did in front of everyone, she says “Because he wanted to, and it’s nice to feel wanted”. She has more in common with Terri and Chad than we at first realize. She isn’t just drawn to Terri because no one else will talk to her – but some deeper level of connection that unfortunately, is only hinted at in the film.

American indie movies about dysfunctional families and teenagers have become pretty standard – we seemingly get at least a dozen each year. But unlike most, Terri is not interested in simply being clever and scoring cheap laughs. It doesn’t mock its characters, but takes them seriously. It is a wonderful little film.

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