This film moves at the same speed as its title character.
A lumbering, overweight teen who withstands all manner of schoolyard abuse with an easy resignation that seems far beyond his years, Jacob Wysocki’s Terri is a loveable outcast who never asked to be loved. In fact, he doesn’t honestly seem to expect much out of life. Parentless, for reasons left unexplained, living in a cluttered, dilapidated woodland house with an uncle slipping into dementia ( The Office ’s MVP Creed Bratton), Terri is first glimpsed reclining in the bathtub. On rare occasions that he does finally get around to going to school, Terri wears his pajamas. “They’re just comfortable. That’s all.”
Director Azazel Jacobs, (here helming his third theatrical feature, following The Goodtimes Kid and Momma’s Man ) has a knack for hanging back and allowing movies to grow on you. Working mostly in long takes, he allows his subjects to enter and exit the frame seemingly of their own free will—story information accumulates gently and unobtrusively. It gathers power as it goes.
Terri’s oddball behavior catches the eye of Assistant Principal Fitzgerald, played by John C. Reilly in a performance so funny and warm I wished I could bring it home with me. Reilly is having a hell of a year, having recently upended the otherwise middling Cedar Rapids with his foul-mouthed, self-lacerating alcoholic glad-hander. But here, his Assistant Principal Fitzgerald is as tenderly goofy as that character was abrasive. Fond of cheap sunglasses, oddball confessions and hilariously self-censored temper tantrums, he genuinely seems to want to help his troubled students, even though most of the time he’s stumped as to where to even start.
It doesn’t hurt that Reilly’s puffy face and wavering voice often give the impression of a giant child stretched out to six feet tall. At times he looks and sounds like a comically oversized version of his charges.
Fitzgerald starts demanding weekly conferences with Terri—just a couple of pals shooting the breeze. What’s so beguiling about Jacobs’ movie, in addition to the off-kilter comic rhythms and ramshackle sense of place, is the respect that it grants this doofus authority figure. Most teen flicks—especially exhibits from the troubled-outcast genre—would offer up Assistant Principal Fitzgerald as a figure of ridicule. (It’s easy to imagine Ellen Page mocking his high-five Ray Bans with obscure pop-culture references that sound like they’re penned by a 35-year-old screenwriter. It’s likewise not difficult to picture Wysocki’s Terri being played for a plus-sized Napoleon Dynamite .)
But Terri understands that sometimes people (especially kids) just need someone to be around and show an interest. Fitzgerald doesn’t have much in the way of life wisdom to impart, and indeed as the film wears on we can slowly see that he’s floundering himself on several personal fronts. Yet the simple fact that he cares obviously means a lot to Terri, and without overstating the case we can see that his influence is making a difference, bringing this sad young man out of his self-imposed shell.
Soon there’s even a makeshift social circle, after Terri befriends manic young Chad (Bridger Zadina,) prone to fits of obscenity and ripping clumps of hair out of his head. More interesting is Olivia Crocicchia’s Heather, a once-popular girl who let her boyfriend go a little too far in front of classmates, and now finds herself a social pariah. The forthright decency with which Terri treats her goes a long way, and Jacobs consistently foregrounds these lost kids’ fragility above all else.
Events don’t so much as occur in this movie as they just sort of accumulate. Patrick Dewitt’s screenplay is sometimes a little thin on details, but contains many wonderfully observed moments that Jacobs wisely allows to remain mysterious. Take for example Creed Bratton’s ailing uncle, so often seen debilitated and trying to manage medications. Yet every now and again he seizes on a moment of lucidity, trying to accomplish as much as he can before the inevitable fade-out recurs. Heartbreaking.
The picture culminates in a boozy, druggy night of teenage exploration. It’s an agonizingly honest sequence, dancing right up to the edge of catastrophe time and again, eventually becoming more suspenseful than a thriller. But even that all eventually blows over, and the final reel of Terri is suffused with a hard-earned sweetness.
“Life’s a mess, dude.” Reilly’s indelible Fitzgerald is fond of saying. “We’re all just doing the best that we can.” That, plus a little kindness, can go a long way toward making things bearable.
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Starring: John C. Reilly, Jacob Wysocki and Bridger Zadina
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely