Azazel Jacobs has built a career on slow-moving portraits of everyday life. He first came to the indie scene’s attention with “Momma’s Man,” a film that wowed Sundance audiences in 2008. This year he’s back with a much more refined film called “Terri,” about an overweight, teenage outcast who finds friendship with the school principal.
Terri, played by newcomer Jacob Wysocki, lives with his senile uncle James (Creed Bratton of “The Office“). He’s given up at conforming to social rules, apparent in the way he wears pajamas to school and has no friends in sight. When he’s called into Mr. Fitzgerald’s office, Terri finds an unexpected friendship with the principal. The fact that Fitzgerald is played by the amazing John C. Reilly only adds to the humor and awkwardness of the situation. When Terri stands up for Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), a young girl tricked into public sexual behavior, he begins to attract a crowd and to gain confidence.
It’s quite amazing that Jacobs has managed to combine the talents of Reilly with these green child actors so effortlessly. This film is Wysocki’s first feature, but you would never be able to tell. He carries the film quite well, and his sullen, apathetic stare is still sympathetic. We like him no matter what — even when he sets traps in the woods to capture innocent mice for some unknown bizarre reason. When Wysocki is in scenes with the other young talent, we totally get how out of place he feels with people his own age. We feel embarrassed for him, while just wanting someone to be his friend.
That role is filled by Reilly’s character, which is nothing new for the actor; Fitzgerald is the genial older man that still has a bit of a child in him. The thing that’s fresh is that Reilly is actually funny here, unlike his recent crap like “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and “Step Brothers.” It’s also one of those roles that really fits his style, as it combines serious material (Fitzgerald has family problems) with utter cluelessness. Fitzgerald doesn’t realize he’s still as big of a dork as he once was, perhaps the reason why he attracts the school rejects.
Jacobs isn’t a showy director; he lets the story unfold on screen organically without any visual tricks. It’s definitely one of the more low-key films at the festival, but Jacobs’ talent doesn’t lie in flashy technique, but in making even the most odd situation believable. Who would let Terri wear pajamas to a public school? Apparently, Mr. Fitzgerald, a man who only pretends to yell at students doing something wrong. Why would a popular girl like Heather give the time of day to someone like Terri? Because he understands what it’s like to have no friends.
And even with a third act that turns out to be almost unwatchable because of the awkwardness, Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick DeWitt never turn to the clichéd or expected for his story. We think Heather will be Terri’s love interest, but in the end, she’s just a lonely girl looking for someone to pay attention to her. That’s far more realistic than having a once popular girl go for a loser of a boy who hardly even speaks. Jacobs wants the viewer’s attention to stay with the relationship between Terri and Fitzgerald– the eccentric bromance evolving before our eyes.
Some might find the rollout of the story too slow. It’s true that there aren’t a lot of action beats; we’re only clued in to the characters of each of man. Fitzgerald was teased when he was younger, Terri’s parents are nowhere to be seen. It’s up to the viewer to fill in the holes and become attached to the characters. More than likely “Terri” will find an audience in independent film houses when released in July as it’s got all the necessary quirk without being over the top. [A-]
For a different take on the film check out our review from SXSW.