June 29, 2011


by Vadim Rizov


Terri sounds like a potentially unwatchable splicing together of two different kinds of movies: a Larry Clark cavalcade of teenagers with body issues and volatile hormones meets an uplifting crowd pleaser. The characters are stigmatized and/or isolated by their physical appearance and externalized mental problems. But having tackled the not-at-all funny topic of a grown man too paralyzed by a nameless fear to leave his parents' home in Momma's Man, director Azazel Jacobs has the appropriate slow rhythms and non-saccharine instincts to render unpleasant, difficult life moments in a tough-but-compassionate way.

At the forefront is awkwardly hulking Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an ungainly teen boy made daily sport of because of his size, whose best friend—seemingly by default—is obscenity-spouting JD Chad (Bridger Zadina), who obsessively tears his hair out by the roots while waiting for his many disciplinary meetings, leaving a nasty bald streak on his head. Other oddballs helping to shape Terri's understanding of people include his Alzheimer's-stricken Uncle James (Creed Bratton) and his schoolmate Heather Miles (Olivia Crochiciccia), who looks like a perfectly airbrushed Disney Channel tween idol airdropped into a decrepit high school.

Ostensibly, Terri is an outsiders-bond-together-and-grow film, but with harsh doses of physical reality: Terri's big in every way (bone structure, height, weight, girth). Instead of turning into a Precious-esque freak show, the film gives the audience time to get comfortable with the protagonist as he himself is learning to embrace being in his own skin.


Home is wood-planked, comfortably cluttered, and has just acquired some rodents that scratch up the basement at night. In an ever-rarer window of total lucidity, Uncle James tells Terri to get mousetraps. Killing the vermin proves easy and provides a peculiar break in Terri's otherwise repetitive, companionless routine of schoolyard bullying and looking after the household with minimal cash. Further inspired, Terri notches up a bunch of corpses in the nearby forest and attracts a hawk, who swoops down over the carcasses for some predatorial munching. It's the first time Terri's made something awesome happen—a bird of prey is there because of him!—but it looks like sadism to uncle James, who thinks otherwise powerless Terri is getting his kicks by murdering small defenseless animals. Terri can't communicate his wish to draw others towards him by any means necessary.

The forest is an enchanted zone, shot as a sun-dappled perpetual magic hour: no one's hiking or biking, leaving a people-less utopia where Terri can be completely comfortable. At the end of the trail lies school, where the lighting grows harsher and flatter and Terri's largely vain and preening classmates display absolute contempt for their home economics teacher. Terri's not dead meat (he's too big to bully), but he's a laughingstock who doesn't understand how to respond.


When assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) sets up Terri for weekly meetings to discuss his emotional problems, it seems inappropriate: Fitgzerald, as usual in Reilly's recent comedy performances, yells loud and often, unnerving those around him and displaying unearned familiarity with relative strangers. Yet he's not a creep, pedophile, or troubled adult trying to sublimate his problems by bonding with kids: his awkward, frankly dorky conduct could be a put-on. His Monday morning conferences are helpful as a diversion from Terri's usual tortuous monotony but essentially uninspiring; they're at least better than home ec. Still, Fitzgerald seems too hapless a figure to motivate any kid insecure about their future place in the world: seen only in his capacity as an administrator, he's a cartoonish figure who turns the already decaying office area into a farce of authority with no real consequences. Like Terri, the gap between what he means to convey and what comes out is often vast.

In the centerpiece scene, Reilly turns a lie into an Oscar clip-reel worthy moment that's actually moving. Most speeches from an eccentric-but-inspiring mentor to a troubled but good-hearted kid come off as unforgivably clunky. Here, Fitzgerald gives a version of the same story twice, first as uplifting kitsch: To spur Terri on, Fitzgerald shows him tragic pictures of a childhood bout with unfortunate back skin. Terri's bemused, but his problems aren't skin-related but how big his frame is, combined with bad eating habits and a general inability to communicate in non-autistic fashion.


As he retells it, Fitzgerald's speech then becomes a heartfelt rant about how well-meaning people lie to each other every day. Terri finds out this corny anecdote isn't one that has never told before (as promised), but exactly the kind of stock sermon told to any kid with problems. Angry, Terri confronts him with a simple complaint: he was lied to, and he feels terrible. Their office face-off is interrupted by a bigger interruption outside: Fitzgerald's been called a creep in graffiti form on campus yet again. After ordering the janitor to get some paint, Fitzgerald sits Terri down for an apology via short story, which is best not to discuss here, but Reilly knocks it out of the park: his schticky, awkward comic persona stops for a sincere, masterfully written speech that essentially tells Terri everyone lies without meaning to. The point is to get Terri to realize that his very real body issues (and how it makes people nervous) can be separated from his emotions; image-vs.-self-loathing problems haunt everyone but the dementia-afflicted uncle. Fitzgerald shows by example how to communicate what you really want to say, even if it gets screwed up the first time around.

It's worth dwelling on this monologue—a five-minute interlude in the middle of a hundred or so more minutes—because it's exceptionally conceived, and also gives the rest of an unnervingly ambiguous film a strong thematic backbone. Terri depicts the kids as all sexually fixated in their own ways, which may be the most realistic way to depict the teen years. The gap between what they think they want (sex, no matter how inappropriately timed or with whom) and the way they express it becomes the gutsy central topic, but treated entirely without exploitation. Terri isn't a feel-good movie; it's a lesson in communication and compassion that gives its title character just enough friends and self-confidence to get him closer to sex, an adult milestone he thought his body would forever prevent him from experiencing.

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Posted by ahillis at June 29, 2011 3:31 PM