Terri, the new film from Azazel Jacobs, who last directed the indie Momma’s Man, is a seriously great movie that serves up an ample antidote to contemporary films of the identity confused coming-of-age teen dramedy ilk. Actually, the first mistake is to label Terri a comedy when in spite of the humorous (albeit restrained) presence of John C. Reilly as Mr. Fitzgerald and the potentially goofy set-up of an obese student who raises the concern of his vice principal when he starts wearing pajamas to school everyday, the film is a probing character drama with doses of funny no more frequent than in real daily life. The character Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is ostracized at school for his weight and social ineptitude and he also has a difficult home life, but Precious this is not. He lives at home with his mentally troubled Uncle James; the absence of Terri’s parents is admirably left unexplained. For all this, Terri isn’t all that sad. He is, however, damn far from happy. Terri just is. His disposition is one of relentless apathy. Even his pajama habit isn’t some form of rebellion but as he honestly explains, they just fit him well.
Terri’s social life is mostly composed of vicarious experience. We see as he periodically observes an over-aggressive horny teen boy frequently attempt to coerce a girl named Heather into allowing him to explore her nether regions during home economics. It isn’t until Mr. Fitzgerald has reached out to Terri that he begins to break free of his passive behaviour and becomes able to participate with his environment and the people around him. Terri eventually witnesses the boy reach his goal with Heather, despite her persistent reluctance. Other students notice as well, humiliating the girl, who becomes a social outcast as a result. Terri’s first moral act comes when he interferes with Fitzgerald’s plans with kicking Heather out of school, assuring him that Heather was not really a willing participant and ultimately convincing him to let her stay. Soon after, Terri again socially intervenes when Heather is being singled out in class and he diverts the attention, rescuing her from further humiliation. The two alienated classmates then embark on a relationship, which begins with the film’s sweetest sequence: a beautiful ode to note-passing (the one high school activity yours truly excelled in). They exchange various smileys and one-line questions and answers. Thankfully, Terri doesn’t tread the territory of other films where the relationship is romanticized and unreasonably sentimental. The characters never really even sincerely connect on a deeper level than a vague mutual understanding of their respective pain.
The relationship between Fitzgerald and Terri is the emotional anchor of the film, and breaks away from the mold of similar teacher/mentor-student dynamics in movies. Often, Fitzgerald’s efforts to communicate are relatively unsuccessful and as we begin to realize the more we see him in conversation with Terri, he has his own fair share of problems. In fact, all the characters in the film are “screwed up”. Not in the “lets celebrate our screwed up-edness as just a sign of our diversity” way that the abysmal Boden/Fleck film from last year did, but in a real “these people have problems” way. The characters become endeared to us not out of contrived idiosyncratic caricaturing but from the mutual struggles they share. Their issues are serious and not afforded a solution, nor are they played down. On the contrary, the issues inherent in the three young leads (the as-of-yet unmentioned Chad is another troubled student receiving extra attention from Mr. Fitzgerald) and Reilly’s character all peak towards the end. Most notably, in what has to be one of the most uncomfortably drawn out sequences in a “high-school movie”, Terri, Heather and Chad all get drunk and pop Terri’s Uncle’s pills in a shed. Their insecurity and vulnerability overflows in an unflinching portrayal of confused adolescent sexuality. The shifting empathetic power of that scene is most impressive as each character is alternatively sad, dumb, and cruel. Heather transfers her sexual humiliation to Chad and pathetically throws herself at Terri, who in turn can only manage to cry. Still, the strongest part of the film lies in the evolution of the relationship between Terri and Fitzgerald which slowly shifts from principal-student to a non-institutionalized friendship.
The subtle politics of the film illuminate some of the cracks in the education system, and how it can fail students. Were it not for Fitzgerald stepping out of the normal bounds of his job, Terri would likely continue through high school completely alienated and confused. Fitzgerald isn’t the cool counselor who tries to be everyone’s “friend” and asks students to refer to him by his first name. His approach is sweet and frank and comes from genuine concern for troubled students. His humble effectiveness comes from his ability to actually relate to their situation. His relative success with Terri contradicts the fundamental rigidity of high school organization. Fitzgerald screws up as much as Terri, and after an incident in which he breached Terri’s trust, he admits as much in a powerful monologue that may mark the high point of Reilly’s career, while also being perhaps the most memorable scene in the film. It’s an inspiring, clumsy soliloquy that is no more articulate than the character saying it: a strong point of the film in that no character’s dialogue or actions reach beyond their limited ability to communicate. At the end of the film, which takes place on a Saturday morning, Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald re-enter the school but on their own terms, and in doing so transform the meaning of the space as well as the dimension of their relationship.
Terri is an unusually effective portrait of high school malaise. It proves more effective than the more clinical steps taken by Noah Baumbach with The Squid and the Whale and the cruel idiosyncratic caricatures of Todd Solondz. It aims not to pull heart strings like other films with similar subject matter and instead stares deeply at the core of adolescent alienation and offers not catharsis nor resolution but strives only to cope with it, much like the characters themselves, a success resulting from Jacobs’ ability to create an authentic realist aura. Deservedly, the film ends with a smile, and an image implying a sense of “growth”, but not with a simple, happy ending that provides absolute closure. Thankfully, the film sidesteps what I thought would be an all too obvious token of character change. Nope, Terri is still wearing pajamas as he exits the frame for the last time. Jacobs avoids such a gesture of conformity and Terri will have to continue struggling with being “different”, for better and for worse, for the rest of his life.