Monday, October 3, 2011

Terri: You're a big boy now

Terri’s eponymous hero is a rotund teen living in some warm, semi-rural place with only an uncle who tends to wander around in a medicinal fog for a guardian. With his wavy locks and formidable neck, Terri cuts something of a Wildean profile, but whatever air of sophistication such qualities might generate is undercut by his calm refusal to engage in social or academic life. He wears Crocs and socks and old school pajamas everywhere—less out of resignation, he claims, than for sheer comfort. He’s exiled from the school gymnasium for declining to participate. He observes other teens going about their activities with the same anthropological distance and wonder he brings to his new habit of murdering mice so as to witness the feeding habits of local birds of prey. He’s also regularly late or absent for class, a casual transgression that inadvertently becomes a route out of his troublesome solitude, because cutting class means going to the principal’s office, and Terri’s principal, Mr. Fitzgerald, takes a special interest in Terri.

Fitzgerald is a middle-aged married man, but both his stagey manner of asserting authority and his calculated attempts to “reach out”—by aiding and abetting Terri’s class cutting through regular appointments; by offering snacks and high-fives and peppering their consultations with an earnestly intoned “Dude...”—render him less a teacher or father figure than an overgrown peer or passive-aggressively needy big brother. Fitzgerald is played by John C. Reilly, and if you start watching Terri and find yourself feeling unsure whether or not it’s supposed to be a comedy, Reilly doesn’t seem to have any such doubts. He’s understatedly goofy, unflatteringly lit and very funny, as well as oddly sweet and lived-in. Reilly is often cast in the supporting bit as that guy that the central character slowly becomes friends with. It’s because it’s hard not to want to become friends with John C. Reilly.

Terri is played by Jacob Wysocki, a young actor with obvious talent but, equally important in a character study such as this, he simply has a marvelously expressive face and body that, however outsized, conveys inner depths even when doing almost nothing. Walking through the woods in his PJs, Wysocki’s Terri could almost be walking through a dream, and there are moments where director Azazel Jacobs’ keen eye for low-key, ordinary strangeness pleasingly heightens that feeling. But as it goes along it becomes clear that Terri, scripted by Patrick Dewitt from a story by Dewitt and Jacobs, is firmly grounded in reality, its depiction of idiotic bullying, misguided cries for help, exploratory sadism, peculiar alliances between unlikely friends, horny fumblings in home economics, and nights spent in the shed getting wasted on stolen whiskey and uncle’s meds and making awkward attempts as sexual posturing all resonate deeply with my experience of high school at least. This is a film that’s attuned to the pains of alienation without wallowing in despair—yet neither does it offer bullshit uplift. It merely suggests that, if we stay alert, there is almost always some chance for each and every one of us to connect.

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