As created by writer-director Azazel Jacobs, the coming-of-age saga Terri concerns itself with a corpulent, lonely 15-year-old (Jacob Wysocki) who lives with his dementia-ridden uncle (Creed Bratton). Terri suffers from constant ostracization at school and seems poised for a dismal future -- his grades are plummeting, and he’s often tardy for class.
For its first 20 or 30 minutes, the picture feels downbeat and gloomy when it intends to be moving. It asks us to empathize with Terri, and while we can admire certain aspects of his character -- such as his compassion when caring for his uncle -- the boy alienates us with his mopery. He spends every scene slumping around, with his head hung low, resigned to accept his second-class social status in high school. The abuse that he draws from classmates seems cruel and obnoxious, but a teenager who regularly wears pajamas to class isn’t simply an outcast; on some level, he’s calling attention to himself, and we never quite forget that.
The story does rebound somewhat when Terri draws the attention and the paternal affection of the school principal (John C. Reilly), a quick-witted, abrasive fellow with a knack for reaching out to pariahs. As Mr. Fitzgerald, Reilly has to navigate his way through speeches that could wax too proselytizing in the hands of a less astute actor, but they sound convincing here. Fitzgerald projects genuine care and concern for Terri that grows increasingly affecting -- yet never overplays its hand -- as the story rolls forward. As such, their relationship may be the best thing in the movie, though Fitzgerald is so entertaining and fascinating that one wishes Jacobs had devoted the entire film to him.
The movie contains another substory as well -- a promising one. Terri catches a glimpse of a slimy fellow student who talks a beautiful female classmate, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), into letting him give her a sly hand job in the middle of home economics class. Thanks to an accidental tip-off from Terri, several of the other students observe Heather climaxing, which brings the young woman endless ridicule. In the days that follow, Terri crawls out onto a limb for Heather, and the two forge a bond that seems to be headed for romance.
As contrived as this may sound, much of the Heather-Terri relationship never fails to persuade. The masturbation scene was a brilliant idea: it postures the young woman as confused, victimized, and isolated -- with a social alienation equal to Terri’s own -- and therefore gives the two adolescents a common thread. Jacobs also draws on their relationship to make some cunning observations about the teenage fear of opening up, especially when set against the backdrop of an environment as socially crippling as a modern high school -- as when Terri and Heather exchange short notes with hand-drawn emoticons in the middle of class.
The awful resolution of that relationship destroys the good will that it earned, however. Though the outcome will not be disclosed here, it involves an evening at Terri’s house, which the two plan to spend together alone. Jacobs has one of Terri’s new “friends,” an aggressively offensive moron named Chad (Bridger Zadina), turn up to throw a major wrench into the couple’s plans. And after that, nothing proceeds as intended. At one point, Chad even verbally assaults Heather with an X-rated come-on.
On one level, we can laud Jacobs for carefully steering around an ending with sudsy adolescent romance -- he doesn’t need to enter Wonder Years territory here, after all. On another, though, the last-minute appearance of Chad feels like a convenient excuse to avoid deeper and more thoughtful exchanges between Terri and Heather. We’ve witnessed their interactions in class, speckled with hints of affection and mutual understanding yet stifled by an inability to communicate openly. But freed of those restraints, what would happen if they actually spent an evening alone together? What complicated emotions would they explore, and what discussions would they have? And how would Heather go about subsequently reconciling her obvious affection for this young man with silly conventions of adolescent life that threaten to squelch such a romance, given Terri’s obesity and social awkwardness? We never find out, and the non-ending serves us a gentle reminder that nothing in cinema is quite as dispiriting as a picture that loses the courage of its convictions.
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- Released: 2011
- Rating: R
- Review: As created by writer-director Azazel Jacobs, the coming-of-age saga Terri concerns itself with a corpulent, lonely 15-year-old (Jacob Wysocki) who lives with his dementia-ridden uncle (Creed Bratton). Terri suffers from constant ostracization at school and… (more)