Azazel Jacobs’s 2008 drama “Momma’s Man” centered on an adult retreating to his parents’ house and yearning for the innocence of his teenage years. The director’s latest feature, “Terri,” centers on a teen fearing adulthood. Jacobs, working from a script by Patrick de Witt, takes a conventional coming-of-age story and does it proud, enlivening the plot with an almost experimental portrait of alienation and despair.
[Editor’s Note: This review was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. “Terri” opens in limited release this Friday, July 1.]
Set in a woodsy area of southern California, the story revolves around the titular pudgy high schooler (Jacob Wysocki in a wonderfully understated debut), who lives at home with ailing uncle, James (Creed Bratton of NBC’s “The Office”). Clearly uncomfortable in his own skin, Terri appears in the first shot of the movie soaking in the bathtub, hesitant to deal with the world beyond it. Frequently tardy and prone to wearing pajamas to school, Terri copes with bully problems and an insatiable sexual curiosity. His off-putting behavior lands him in the vice principal’s office, where the eccentric Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) subjects Terri to weekly meetings to discuss his problems that initially seem less likely to help the kid than to confuse him further.
Like everyone else in the movie, Mr. Fitzgerald is seen entirely through Terri’s eyes; we don’t know his first name and have few details about the older man’s personal life. But Terri notices something odd in the didactic Fitzgerald, whose rambling advice sessions often end with inexplicable tantrums and irreverent asides. He also notices the other regulars in Fitzgerald’s office, including the obnoxiously anarchic Chad (Bridger Zadina), and wonders if getting special attention only further ostracizes him from everyone else. Eventually, Terri manages to befriend the downtrodden Heather (Olivia Crociccia), whose random sexual encounter with another student puts her in the crosshairs of mean-spirited hallway gossip. Moving beyond his ability to wallow in self-pity, Terri slowly begins to change his status.
This has more to do with Fitzgerald’s influence than Terri may care to admit. When the vice principal lectures his disciple about the difference between “good-hearted kids and bad kids,” placing Terri in the former camp, he begins to apply that distinction to his burgeoning social consciousness by befriending a few classmates who suffer from the same isolation he experiences every day.
That transition takes time, which Jacobs has on his side. The early conversations between Fitzgerald and Terri sound like the rudimentary life lessons of a G-rated Nickelodeon movie, until Terri starts calling out Fitzgerald on his flimsy advice by taking the special attention as an insult. “I’m part of a group of monsters,” Terri complains. When Fitzgerald tries to assuage those concerns by relating his own acne-riddled teen years, Terri cuts him off. “You were a monster,” he says. “I am one.”
Rather than discredit Fitzgerald, however, Terri begins to view his future through his appointed mentor. As the only person legitimately concerned for his well-being, Fitzgerald may not be a role model but he’s at least a kind of crystal ball for Terri to consider how he might turn out.
As with “Momma’s Man,” Jacobs’ rhythm in these scenes places emphasis on quiet reaction shots instead of extended conversation. In both his meetings with Fitzgerald and his despondent home life with his fading uncle, Terri looks perpetually baffled and frustrated. Lacking the eloquence to express his anger, he sets mouse traps in the woods, a symbolic act that lays bare his initial incapacity to change things. The cause and effect of luring birds with cheese proves a lot more reliable than the challenge of making friends. With this curious development, Jacobs probes the subtext of being an outcast.
Terri finds himself surrounded by uncertainty on all sides: Fitzgerald means well but speaks in contradictions; his uncle takes pills that leave him in a zombie-like daze; Chad is a loose cannon; and Heather has worse emotional baggage than any of them. A prolonged sequence involving all three teens hanging out in Terri’s garage takes an exceedingly dark, moody turn, concluding with his sudden epiphany about the universal nature of loneliness.
That revelation arrives not with a lengthy monologue but in a single, prolonged physical gesture—which is what makes Jacobs’ technique so refreshingly wise. He brings a heightened state of awareness to the moments in between simplistic plot developments, when Terri just watches and ponders the mounting complexities surrounding him. His final confrontation with Fitzgerald smartly avoids any precise conclusion, subtly demonstrating Terri’s emerging belief that life simply continues.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Distributor ATO Films has an effective, bittersweet tale. Although a small-scale production and incredibly low key, “Terri” may allow Jacobs’ work to reach a larger audience through Reilly’s star power (and possibly some fans of Bratton’s role on “The Office”).
criticWIRE grade: A-