A gloomy, obese 15-year-old misfit forms a close and unusual friendship with his school's assistant principal in this quirky tale of teen alienation.
Filmmaker Azazel Jacobs takes a rather fresh and unique look at teen alienation in his indie comedy drama Terri (2011) and has won over a slew of critics in the process. Roger Ebert awarded the film a perfect score of four out of four stars, and it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Terri is a pretty odd film, but it has some surprisingly warm, human moments amid the weirdness. The film is based on a series of short stories by novelist Patrick deWitt.
The film centers on the life of an obese 15-year-old high school student named Terri Thompson, who's played by Jacob Wysocki in his feature-film debut. Terri's a sullen kid whose life is pretty much miserable across the board. At home, he spends a good portion of his time looking after his ailing Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who appears to be suffering from early stages of Alzheimer's disease. And at school, Terri is a social outcast who's constantly being ridiculed for his weight. One particularly cruel classmate calls Terri "double d's" and grabs his chest shouting, "gah-ooo-gah!"
And to add more fuel to the bullies' fire, Terri has recently started the odd practice of wearing his pajamas to school. When asked why he wears his pj's to school, he answers simply, "They're just comfortable on me." Much of Terri's life remains a mystery. It's never explained why his parents are not in the picture and why he alone is charged with looking after his sick uncle.
Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the assistant principal of Terri's high school, takes an interest in the morose 15-year-old. Fitzgerald is a friendly and garrulous man, the total opposite of the rigid disciplinarians that principals are often portrayed as in teen comedies. Fitzgerald explains to Terri that the school is made up of two types of students who stand out: "the good-hearted kids and the bad-hearted kids." He considers Terri among the former group and invites him to come in for visits in his office every Monday morning to talk about whatever's on his mind.
Fitzgerald is a rather unconventional principal; he really seems to want to be Terri's friend and not just another stern adult authority figure in the teen's unhappy life. He correctly surmises that Terri needs a person that he can open up to, someone with whom he can share his fears, insecurities and goals. A strong friendship slowly develops between the two. The exchanges between Terri and Fitzgerald are among some of film's best scenes. Wysocki and Reilly have great chemistry in their scenes together. The always-reliable Reilly turns in a strong performance as Fitzgerald, and Wysocki is impressive in his first feature-film outing as Terri.
Terri befriends two other misfits at his school. One of them is a scrawny loner named Chad Markson (Bridger Zadina) who compulsively pulls his own hair out. Chad is a strange kid who has a lot of anger issues and often acts out for attention. Compared to Chad, Terri seems fairly normal. Like Terri, Chad meets with Fitzgerald once a week to talk about what's going on in his life. Chad is a sharp kid, and he's much more world-wise than Terri. Chad can be funny and very likable on occasion, but there's something about him that's worrisome. He seems like one of those troubled kids who might completely snap one day and go on a shooting spree. Zadina delivers an edgy and memorable performance as Chad. The young actor steals nearly every scene he's in.
Terri also befriends a girl in his home economics class named Heather Miles (Olivia Crocicchia). Heather is a pretty girl but has very low self-esteem. She allows boys to take advantage of her sexually because of a deep-seated need to feel loved and wanted. Heather is treated like a pariah following an incident in home ec class where her boyfriend pressures her into a sexual act, which almost gets her kicked out of school. Terri sees something in Heather that his fellow students don't. He sees a wounded soul like himself. Heather appreciates the fact that Terri is kind to her and doesn't appear to want anything in return for that kindness. The scenes between the two shyly passing notes to one other in class are quite touching. Crocicchia does a stellar job as Heather, bringing a deep sense of vulnerability and underlying sadness to the role. Even when the character is being overtly sexual, there's a hint of sadness in her eyes.
Terri is a very engaging film, and the viewer feels thoroughly invested in the main character. However, the final third of the film feels a bit rushed, and the trajectory of the friendship between Terri and Chad seems to jump a few stages ahead of where it really should be at that point. Also, the ending feels kind of abrupt, and a lot of issues in the film go unresolved. But perhaps that was Jacobs' intention--to not give viewers a pat, predicable ending but allow them to reflect on the characters and speculate what happens with them. Terri is definitely a film that stays with you.
Terri at Amazon