Against pretty tall odds, Azazel Jacobs’ Terri turns out to be a very good movie with a great deal of charm. I hadn’t expected it going in. The trailer didn’t really suggest it would be this good. The chilling words “a hit at the Sundance 2011 Film Festival” that are used to promote it were … well, chilling. And it looked for all the world like it was prepared to shove its “indie cred” down my throat and wash it down with forced quirkiness. Frankly, it took a little while for me to get past that feeling—the early scenes seemed to bear out my worst suspicions, but the film relaxes fairly quickly and permits itself to be warmly, quietly human with its quirk coming from a genuine place. Moreover, it turned out to be filmed in an unfussy, almost classical, style that didn’t try to prove its “reality” by drawing attention to ill-lit, hand-held cheapness. A wise move, because it didn’t need to.
In case you don’t know—and with a movie like Terri, which hasn’t bombarded you with ads and trailers, you may well not—Terri (newcomer Jacob Wysocki) is a more-than-plus-size teenager. He seems withdrawn, but more or less accepting of his outcast status. In fact, the school he attends—or more to the point the assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly)—only notices him at all because he’s started arriving late and taken to coming to school in pajamas. These things finally get him called into Fitzgerald’s office. Fitzgerald is well-intentioned, but more than a little inept. He mistakes Terri’s quietness for mental slowness and treats him accordingly, which is a grave.
Regardless, Terri doesn’t open up. The only thing he explains at all is that he wears pajamas because they’re comfortable—never offering a word about his tardiness being the result of having to take care of his Alzheimer’s-afflicted Uncle James (Creed Bratton, TV’s The Office). Then again, neither Terri nor the film ever address this directly. For that matter, Terri never explains what happened to his parents that landed him in the dubious custody of his uncle. This may bother some people. I didn’t think it was important. What struck me as important is the nature of Terri as caregiver. As the film progresses, it seems to me more and more obvious that this is a role life has assigned to him—and which it will continue to assign him with anyone he gets close to.
Much of the film deals with Terri’s ongoing sense of betrayal. He’s outraged when he learns that everyone who becomes one of Fitzgerald’s personal charges are deeply disturbed—“monsters,” he calls them—because he hates being lumped into that group. He will later be outraged again when he learns he’s been on the receiving end of one of Fitzgerald’s stock “confidences.” Of course, it follows that he will befriend the “worst” of the “monsters,” Chad (TV actor Bridger Zadina), just as he will champion a girl, Heather Miles (Olivia Crocicchia, TV’s Rescue Me), who is about to be kicked out of school for sexual misconduct. And he will later befriend her when she’s ostracized by her other classmates.
Though touted as a comedy—and parts of it are funny—this is really a drama. It may seem to fit into the realm of the coming-of-age movie, but it feels more like a sadly wise coming-to-terms one, which isn’t the same thing. In fact, Terri basically concludes that he’s not ready for anything like adulthood—little realizing he’s actually already there. It’s small-scale, but it’s warm and human and perceptive. And for those few reviews I’ve seen that say the film doesn’t go anywhere, I can only say their writers weren’t paying attention. Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug and alcohol use—all involving teens.