High school is painfully dull, incredibly awkward, and definitely not what teen-comedies make them out to be. Sure there are parties and sex, but as far as the day-to-day routine goes, it’s less like “American Pie” and more in tune with the “Elephant” (well, at least the film’s first two thirds…) Maybe some of us have fond memories of those later teen years, but honestly, Judd Apatow hit the nail on the head with this quote: “College is the reward for surviving high school. Most people have great fun stories from college and nightmare stories from high school.”
But nothing’s really fun about mundane conversations and teachers milking their tenure, so studios shy away from the dire interpretations of that jungle and instead favor seeing those years generally as cartoonish, perverted sex odysseys; often to much success, so we can’t say it’s a brain-dead move.
But for those pining for something substantial in regards to those graceless days, Azazel Jacobs‘ “Terri” might be just what the doctor ordered. The film follows the titular character (played by the terrific Jacob Wysocki), an introverted and overweight boy with more going on inside than he lets on. Maneuvering the bland hallways in his pajamas (for comfort reasons), he goes from class to class only finding solace in clearing his attic of vermin and dilly-dallying in the woods behind school. This behavior raises a flag for Vice Principal/Guidance Counselor Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) and the mentor character decides to take Terri under his wing, constructing weekly pow-wows that consist of heart-to-hearts and malt balls. Eventually this friendship deepens and leads the boy to other friendly misfits, such as the Aspergers/Tourettes Syndrome-afflicted Dirty Jack (Justin Prentice) or the hypersexual prep Heather (Olivia Crocicchia). We recently chatted with Reilly about the film and he talked about the excitement he found in the enthusiasm of the young cast and the tenuous relationship between a guidance counselor and their students.
“He’s definitely got certain moves in his playbook. Like one kid needs someone to yell at him and other kids need someone they can relate to. Some just need people to say that this isn’t the end of your life, that all this stuff is going to happen after high school… I think a lot of people can use that kind of advice, in fact I think I could’ve used it,” Reilly said about the fluctuating mentorship style of Mr. Fitzgerald.
Jacobs’ third film is just as endearing as it is uncomfortable, and at the core of that is the relationship between Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald. Reilly’s portrayal as the flawed adviser is a much more complex approach than others would’ve likely given it – a character that gives a one-size-fits-all answers to teen problems and is suffering from merital problems sounds very textbook, but the “Magnolia” actor veers away from cliches and instead gives something much more genuine. Once devoid of his bag of tricks, the vice principal shares his own bit of insight coupled with the Reilly humor we’ve all come to love; while still subtly wrestling with personal problems.
But what about the person dealing with all the problems? Does carrying all of that responsibility and being there for dozens of people eventually become too much of a burden? “It must be similar to what a police officer goes through. You’re never called to go somewhere for a good reason, you’re called because there’s a problem, so your life just becomes problems… and that has to stick after awhile,” Reilly reckoned. Even though this guidance counselor manages to keep it together, you can still see the cracks beginning to form. “If you don’t maintain your own sense of balance, it can be a lot of weight to carry around. You realize how complicated life can be and how common people get stuck in one way or another. If you open a newspaper right now, it’s really hard to be an optimist.”
Despite the decidedly unpleasant tone throughout the movie and Reilly’s pessimistic world view (which we totally feel), shooting the movie was exhilarating. “Terri” marks the first time that the long-time thesp has interacted strictly with children, give or take a few lines to his elderly secretary in the film. The atmosphere the excited teens brought to the set was apparently contagious. “For someone who’s getting a lot older and done a lot of movies, you can get very set in your ways; it’s tough to be really enthusiastic about your days sometimes,” Reilly admitted. “But when you’re working with someone who’s new to the game, it’s a really infectious enthusiasm and it’s a good reset button for you because you realize how lucky you are to be doing what you’re doing and how exciting it is to tell a story like this.” Nothing like the young to reinvigorate the old. “They’re just fun to be around. It’s boring to be around old people who just complain about the craft service. It’s fun to be around people that are just psyched to be there.”
“Terri” opens on July 1st.