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Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: Terri (2011)

* * *

Director: Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly

Azazel Jacobs' Terri is in many ways a quintessential indie movie. It's a little bit weird, more slowly paced than a studio film, and can't be easily classified as either drama or comedy, possessing a delicate mixture of both. This template isn't always successful, of course, but in the hands of a filmmaker who knows what he or she is doing, it can be. Terri is a successful film, one which demonstrates craft on the part of Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick DeWitt.

Terri, named for the protagonist ably played by Jacob Wysocki, centers on an overweight, parentless misfit teenager. He lives with his uncle, James (Creed Bratton), less as his ward and more as his caregiver, and is bullied at school. He soon gains the attention of the school's principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who schedules him for a standing meeting once a week so that they can discuss the issues that Terri is dealing with. At first Terri is happy with the arrangement - his isolation as the film opens is near complete both physically (he and his uncle live in a somewhat remote rural area) and socially - but he soon discovers that Fitzgerald has standing appointments with several students, all of whom are, in one way or another, social outcasts.

The discovery upsets Terri at first, but Fitzgerald is able to bring him back around, convincing him that he hasn't been singled out because he's "a freak." Soon Terri is developing a tentative friendship with Chad (Bridger Zadina), a troubled kid with bald spots caused by his compulsive need to pull out his hair and the one misfit student that Fitzgerald fears might not simply be misunderstood and unfairly marginalized. He also develops a friendship with Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), a pretty girl who would probably never be within Terri's orbit were it not for an incident of slut shaming which results in her becoming a pariah at school. Terri stands up for her twice (though she only knows about the second incident) and she's drawn to his kindness, though her way of demonstrating as much ultimately frightens and, perhaps, humiliates Terri.

Terri is a film that moves slowly and according to its own particular beats. It takes its time developing the characters and their relationships and is more than willing to cast the characters in a less than flattering light in order to flesh them out and expand our view of them. Terri is generally a sweet natured character but near the beginning of the film engages in an incredible act of cruelty. The build up to this scene, as well as Fitzgerald's subsequent reaction to Terri's confession, is part of what makes the film so narratively strong in spite of its rather common subject matter.

Throughout the film Jacobs prefers subtlety when dealing with emotions, shelving intensity in favour of a more muted sensibility. Whether this is his natural tendency as a storyteller or whether it arose out of necessity due to the (relative) inexperience of the younger cast, I can't say, but it works well. Stories about teenagers often end up feeling melodramatic to the point of ridiculousness, but Terri dials it back just enough to make it feel realistic without dialing it back so much that it feels as if there is nothing at stake. Overall the film strikes a fine and precise balance, one which makes it better than the average film about teenagers.

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