Wednesday, July 6, 2011


The Adventures Of Awkwardness, And Its Lessons

Jacob Wysocki as the title character in Azazel Jacobs' comedy-drama "Terri".
Art Takes Over

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, July 6, 2011

"Terri" is about a young man in another time, comfortable in his skin.  Terri could have been just another over-sized misfit, but director Azazel Jacobs (and the film's lead actor Jacob Wysocki) make the title character a touchstone for discovery and understanding.  This coming-of-age comedy-drama digs under the cheerful skin where so many other similar genre comedy-dramas reside to reveal a strong core of truth and enlightenment, realistically presented.  The film opened in New York and Los Angeles last week, and will expand its release around the country over the next few weeks.

"Terri" has a discipline, feel and pace altogether different from many films of its ilk, and an innate sense of anthropology and archaeology.  Terri is always digging and exploring, whether in a forest where he's often playing, or with questions to fellow classmates.  (Is awkwardness what is out of place in the film, or is the world out of step with Terri?  Mr. Jacobs, who directed "Momma's Man", knows how to get inside adolescent dilemmas and separation anxieties well.)  Terri wears pajamas to school and each day he lumbers in to class a few minutes late, and occasionally not at all.  He's been castoff by his parents and lives with his uncle (Creed Bratton).  Terri's day-to-day struggle is mostly with a few students in his class. 

Mr. Jacobs's film explores a journey of realization in a young man who has an enormous amount of compassion as he aligns with a reviled classmate who has been caught in some in-class hanky-panky.  In "Terri" there's the unspoken language of Terri's inner voice, which says: Are you exploring?  I am too.  Can you help me?  Can we help each other?  It's a profoundly human subtext, one that enriches the film's fabric so very well.  There are moments of silence where I felt that Terri's investigation and empathy were spot-on for this absorbing and insightful film.  "Terri" in fact, possesses a more mature look at growing up than the film advertises.

As capably directed by Mr. Jacobs, "Terri" is humorous and has the smell of dankness and life, which pulses through it.  I commiserated with the offending characters whose hands get caught squarely in the cookie jar of curiosity, even as I was glad they got caught.  The film maturely observes the growth of wrongdoers, the kind who don't do things to be mean, unlike the school brats you always see in films about adolescents.  In those films the bully (usually propped up by his or her cowardly trio of sycophants) always roams the school halls and cafeterias like a puritanical government enforcer, wielding a Darwinian stick, discouraging the very existence of those too weak to stand up for themselves, let alone explore what life is about.  This happens to an extent in "Terri", but there's something else afoot indicating that the free rides bullies get will come to a swift end.

For me "Terri" is less about an awkwardly shaped 15-year-old than it is a metaphor for delving beyond the surface to experiment not with growing up but with the purity of what is good, bad and natural.  "Terri" is clearly focused on teenage high school kids, but the concepts of identity, exploration and belonging that Mr. Jacobs builds on here (with a smart, astute script by Patrick Dewitt) register on a broader level.  Terri is the same as other children in his class -- he merely dares to be comfortable in his own skin, and explore life in it and around him.  In doing so "Terri" resists a nobility and righteousness that it so easily could have trumpeted. 

Terri knows what's right and wrong but he's still exploring what is good and bad in the world.  Without his parents, who may not have taught him about the facts of life or social protocol, Terri is left to discover and find out for himself what life with other life forms and humans is all about.  Terri's like a big baby, but he's a wise big baby.  The film's opening shot shows Terri in a bathtub.  Terri is in the water looking straight ahead.  It's a snapshot and metaphor of this character's roots and the start of his evolution, as if he's just been born.

John C. Reilly is the school's unorthodox principal who guides and influences Terri, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow.  Mr. Reilly is sublime in a parody-like performance of school principals and their typical responses to children who behave "badly".  Yet as Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Reilly also brings a lot more to the table than meets the eye.  As a character he too is investigating the mistakes he's made in his life, and Mr. Fitzgerald is less a figure of authority than a scrutinizer of adult responses to insubordination.  It's a sharp, clever and funny turn by Mr. Reilly, one that leavens the suspenseful, weightier terrain "Terri" treads confidently across.  There's a friskiness and father-figure rapport Mr. Reilly has with Mr. Wysocki, and both are at their best when they are onscreen together. 

Mr. Wysocki, in one of his few film acting assignments ever, does well as Terri, a lumbering soul with a big heart, as do Olivia Crocicchia as Heather, a sexually adventurous girl that Terri defends and befriends, and Bridger Zadina as Chad, an insecure, scalp-tugging loner guy.  Both of the latter characters project a palpable volatility and danger, especially Mr. Zadina, terrific as a teen who experiments and plays his anxieties out to the hilt.  One scene involving the trio of youngsters forms the crux of "Terri", and the scene is a film unto itself.  At about 15 minutes in length, the scene is marvelously acted, shot, edited and directed.

"Terri" is the real "American Beauty", sliding past that latter film's synthetic, surface showiness and gimmickry to examine the bowels of the process of the end of innocence.  Stripped bare, "Terri", a delightful, probing entertainment, mines each of its characters and brings us closer to them.  We identify solidly with them.  As an audience watching "Terri" we are not voyeurs who feel like intruders when watching Sam Mendes' Oscar-winning film; we are as close to being participants in these characters' lives as they are in their own.

"Terri" may feel like "Stand By Me" in some areas but it has its own unmistakable voice.  Mr. Jacobs' film depicts dread, anticipation and rite-of-passage so convincingly, earnestly exploring but never falling short of engaging the viewer.  I never lost sight of the tutorial of this film, and "Terri" captures the kinds of feelings that I had as an "other" while in high school and junior high in England many years ago.  Experiences are life, and sometimes they occur in a place (school) that is all-too-often guilty of not teaching the lessons that it really should.  "Terri" is intelligent enough to recognize this and activate itself beyond the level of average film, letting its experiences happen instead of allowing for characters (or an editor) to truncate them. 

In "Terri", there isn't glee or celebration in the act of discovery, only relief.

With: Tim Heidecker, Mary Anne McGarry, Justin Prentice, Diane Salinger, Curtiss Frisle, Tara Karsian, Jenna Gavigan, Lisa Hoover.

"Terri" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content, language and some drug and alcohol use -- all involving teens.  The film's running time is one hour and 45 minutes.

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