Terri (United States, 2011)

July 21, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Terri Poster

In high school, there are two kinds of kids: the popular ones and everyone else. I suspect most of us, looking back on our teen years, would identify ourselves as "outsiders." Whether others would agree is open to debate, but being an outsider is more a state of mind than a state of fact, and teen angst makes everyone feel occasionally unloved and downtrodden. Azazel Jacobs' Terri wades into the anthropology experiment that is high school to examine what it means to be an outsider. The film is a hit-and-miss affair with some scenes and relationships ringing true and others drowning in a deep pool of artifice. Perhaps the oddest thing about Terri is how gentle the teenagers are. The streak of cruelty one often encounters when facing the pack mentality is muted. I'm afraid that a high school in which the students are this well-behaved and (generally) non-judgmental may only exist in the movies.

Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is a big guy - the kind of boy who would be at home on a college football offensive line. His life is unremittingly bleak and he trudges through it without much consideration for how bad things are. His guardian, Uncle James (Credd Bratton), suffers from a form of dementia that affords him only occasional moments of lucidity. Terri's repeated tardiness and insistence on wearing pajamas to school (they're comfortable) have earned him a reputation for laziness and inattentiveness among his teachers. His fellow students often smirk at him and murmur behind his back, but no one is overly nasty. Terri keeps to himself, seemingly uninterested in having a companion.

The Vice Principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), sees in Terri "a good heart" and decides to befriend him. Their interaction is odd, with Terri latching onto the older man as a father figure. This relationship, which lies at the core of Terri, is problematic. To begin with, Mr. Fitzgerald seems more like a writer's construct than a real human being (no discredit meant to Reilly, who does the best he can to make the Vice Principal genuine). In the real world, students and authority figures don't interact this way in academia (Fitzgerald would lose his job); that only happens in movies that premiere at film festivals.

The screenplay introduces two other outsiders. The first is Chad (Bridger Zadina), who is a stereotypical slacker: whip-smart, unmotivated, contemptuous of authority, and fond of controlled substances. The second is Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who becomes the school harlot when she allows a boy to finger her during home economics. She later confesses to Terri, who befriends her when others offer only scorn, that she did it because the guy wanted it, and "being wanted" means something to her. While I can buy Chad's status as an outsider, the same cannot be said about Heather. A girl this "easy" would not be ostracized; she'd be the most popular girl on campus (at least among male students). Yes, there would be bitchy comments made behind her back, but the line of boys waiting to carry her books and do her homework would be long. Here, however, her public sexual escapade makes her persona non grata among her fellows, regardless of their gender.

The interaction between the three teenagers is well executed and plausible, despite the almost complete lack of a back story for any of them. Even Terri's past remains largely a mystery. He knows nothing about his parents and is stuck acting as Uncle James' caregiver (we assume James is his biological uncle rather than just a family friend, although we don't know for sure). Chad and Heather are blank slates; we see only the pieces of themselves they reveal while around Terri.

The best scene takes place when the three offbeat "friends" have an impromptu party - drinking whiskey and downing pills stolen from Uncle James' stash. As they become progressively more wasted, their inhibitions melt away. Personality traits are accentuated: Chad becomes more aggressive and horny, Heather offers herself to Terri, and Terri sinks in apathy. As Heather removes his shirt then strips naked in front of him, he merely lies back and stares. The scene is not romanticized; it radiates the raw, clumsy sexuality of adolescence, but there's also something uncomfortable about it. Had the rest of the film been assembled with this level of insight and adroitness, Terri might have been a remarkable motion picture.

The three young leads give solid performances. None are acting neophytes, but neither do they have long, accomplished resumes. Jacob Wysocki is easily the strongest of the three, but he also has at least four or five times the screen exposure of anyone else (except perhaps Reilly). He does a lot of his acting with his sad, haunted eyes. The performance is thoughtful and never exaggerated. Although John C. Reilly is playing a figure as believable as Santa Claus, his portrayal is straightforward. It's good to see him returning to dramatic acting after spending a little too much time yukking it up in largely unfunny comedies.

Jacobs keeps the tone light, which creates a weird disconnect with the depressing weariness of Terri's life. Then again, making Terri darker might have resulted in something unwatchable. The problem is, a lot of the movie feels forced and unnatural, almost to the degree of being more fable than contemporary drama. There are good moments, worthwhile performances, and the seeds of something interesting here, but they never gel.

Terri (United States, 2011)

Director: Azazel Jacobs
Cast: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Bridger Zadina, Olivia Crocicchia, Credd Bratton
Screenplay: Patrick Dewitt
Cinematography: Tobias Datum
U.S. Distributor: ATO Pictures
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2011-07-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1