Terri is a film about painfully awkward high school misfits and the equally awkward, but wise and understanding adults, who they will grow up to be. It’s material that has certainly been covered before in other movies, but there’s something about writer/director Azazel Jacobs’ darkly uncompromising, yet disarmingly sweet version of the tale. When Jacobs opens his movie with the image of a deeply depressed overweight high schooler preparing for another day of mockery and rejection, you’ll feel like you know exactly where the movie is going before the filmmakers get there. Yet somehow, the story unfolds at its own pace in a very unpredictable way. It’s a small masterpiece of pain, rejection and understanding, told with just enough humor to avoid being overwhelming and without ever mocking or judging the characters.

The titular, Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is a mountain of a teenager with a warm heart. Clearly worn down by years of mockery, he quietly accepts his social rejection and takes to wearing pajamas to school when he bothers to even show up at all. At home, Terri is cared for by an uncle who is slowly going senile. At school, he has the support of the assistant principle Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who invites him to his office for regular chats offering advice on how to cope. Fitzgerald is a bit of an idiot, but he’s honest, he genuinely cares, and his troubled students (including Terri’s only friend, the aggressively misbehaving Chad) recognize that he is an outcast himself. Then there’s Heather, a girl who Terri saved from expulsion after he saw her sexually manipulated and was able to explain it to Mr. Fitzgerald. They strike up a friendship that leads to a night of booze, pills, and experimentation filled with intense anxiety that never feels false.

Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly

Jacob Wysocki as Terri and John C. Reilly as Mr. Fitzgerald in TERRI

Written out like that, the plot may sound a little predictable, but that’s not even close to the case. Writer/director Azazel Jacobs paces his film to the rhythms of life rather than movies. Scenes play out naturally and it rarely feels like Jacobs is building to anything other than moment-to-moment realism. Terri isn’t an object of geeky ridicule like Napoleon Dynamite, but a genuinely flawed human being whose wall of eccentricities surround a warm and caring soul. He’s played by Jacob Wysocki, who gives an extraordinarily warm, touching, and funny performance. Wysocki’s work is remarkable for such a young actor and his gift for gentle comedy and warm drama suggests that he could very well become a new John Candy.

Jacob Wysocki

Jacob Wysocki as the title character in TERRI

The young actors playing Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) and Chad (Bridger Zadina) also do impressively naturalistic work, but their characters don’t feel quite as unique as Terri. John C. Reilly’s turn as the assistant principle is one of his finest, allowing him to play the type of buffoon he’s good at while still coming across as a genuine and complex human being. The relationship between Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald is the film’s strength. The grown man sees through Terri’s temper tantrums, outbursts, and pain. He knows how to curb the teen’s problems simply by relating to him. Since he’s such a screwed up man himself (divorce seems to be on his horizon and he’s never as smooth at delivering advice as he thinks it is), he’s actually a perfect role model for his collection of high school rejects. Mr. Fitzgerald shows by example that not only are adults just as unprepared to deal with the world as teenagers, but the wisest and most interesting grown ups struggled through their high school years as well.

Jacob Wysocki and Olivia Crocicchia

Jacob Wysocki as Terri and Olivia Crocicchia as Heather in TERRI

Terri is a small wisp of a movie, yet it’s done so well in such an unpredictable way that it will stick with you far longer than films many times its scale. Azazel Jacobs’ delicate understanding of human nature is beautiful to watch unfold and his constant use of subtle character comedy keeps things from ever becoming too overbearing. It’s a movie that certainly doesn’t shy away from the deepest pains of high school existence and one that’s wise enough to know how to laugh at that and explore how universal those feelings can be. Though Terri is sadly easy to write off as an indie quirk fest at first glance, this is a surprisingly intelligent and insightful movie that deserves attention. Hopefully it won’t be forgotten by the time awards season rolls around.

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