2011 // USA // Azazel Jacobs // July 26, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Theaters Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
Around the time I first started this blog, I was pursuing a little mission to view every feature film released theatrically in the U.S. in 2007 that had scored 70 or higher on Metacritic. That idiosyncratic task proved to be more formidable than I first imagined, not only because that seemingly narrow list actually encompassed 144 films, but also because it included many features that were devilishly difficult to find (or outright unavailable) on DVD. One of those elusive films was Azazel Jacobs’ ultra-low-budget experimental feature The Goodtimeskid, a film that was shot in 2005 and then given a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release on the Coasts in 2007. Although Benten and Watchmaker Films finally provided The Goodtimeskid with a DVD release in 2009, I still haven’t seen the damn thing. Which I suppose illustrates that being denied access to a film has an insidious inertia that eventually saps away one’s motivation to see said film.
It’s a safe bet that lack of availability won’t be a problem for Jacobs’ films in the future, given the unassuming critical success of 2008’s Momma’s Man and the Sundance-friendly contours of his latest feature, the realist high school dramedy Terri. John C. Reilly provides the obligatory dose of down-to-earth star power for first-time screenwriter Patrick DeWitt’s tale of an overweight teen (Jacob Wysocki) and his everyday travails. Terri is the sort of dreary loner whose misery is partly due to hard-luck circumstances beyond his control, but also partly due to his own unpleasantly dyspeptic demeanor. Serving as the sole caregiver for an elderly uncle suffering from dementia (Creed Bratton) and apparently bereft of friends or interests, Terri seems on the cusp of giving up on life in general. His grades are slipping, he’s perpetually tardy for school, and he’s taken to wearing rumpled pajamas as his everyday outfit. (“They’re just comfortable,” he matter-of-factly explains.)
Jacobs’ approach is decidedly unhurried and observational, while lightly indulging in the conventions of indie dramedy: oddball character embellishments, a folksy musical score, and suspiciously opportune plot developments. The director evenly scrutinizes Terri’s interactions with his uncle, schoolmates, teachers, and the natural world—embodied in a wooded tract between his house and the high school—to establish the rotund teen’s psychological terrain. If Terri is a bit unreadable in the film’s early scenes, it has less to do with Wysocki’s fittingly slack gaze than with the absence of any sounding-board in his life. The viewer is left to discern what they will from his introverted eccentricities, such as a penchant for constructing fortresses out of his home economics supplies, or a brief interest in trapping attic-dwelling mice and feeding their furry little carcasses to hawks.
Inasmuch as the film has a plot, it concerns the disruption of Terri’s sad-sack, downward-spiraling routine that occurs when the avuncular, sympathetic assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), takes an interest in his well-being. This new relationship, which Terri approaches with a mixture of wariness and gratitude, sets into motion events that nudge other students into his normally lonely social orbit. These include the scrawny, tightly-wound delinquent Chad (Bridger Zadina), as well as blonde cutie-pie Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), freshly relegated to the bottom of the school’s totem pole due to a scandalous classroom sex act. The radiant Heather’s budding friendship with Terri has a whiff of a male misfit wish-fulfillment, but DeWitt’s dialog blessedly refrains from drawing attention to the improbability of their Popular Girl / Fat Kid pairing. Although the film is decidedly male-focused, Heather is effectively (albeit subtly) employed to probe at a variety of feminist concerns, from sexual coercion to slut-shaming to the Nice Guy phenomenon.
Blackly comical portraits of life on the margins of the adolescent mainstream have been ubiquitous in American indie cinema for the past two decades, to the point that most contemporary entries are downright tedious. However, despite Terri’s reliance on generic formulas, the reserved quality of Jacobs’ method is refreshing. Forgoing overt pathos, vicious miserablism, or ostentatious displays of geek-chic, the film has a quiet economy that impresses. Within the dryly amusing spectacle of Terri wrestling to find his place in the world, Jacobs finds expression for several key themes. Most prominently, the film asserts that the right course of action is a murky thing in a complex world, a notion that Mr. Fitzgerald voices and also embodies. Although perceptive and generous, the assistant principal is shown to be a flawed man who bends the rules, makes biased assumptions, and fumbles through his own personal life. Terri also serves as a rather blunt examination of how societies react to individuals that breach physical, mental, or behavioral norms, and how outcasts struggle to establish a tense hierarchy of their own. The term “monster” crops up with sufficient frequency that a genderqueer reading of the film doesn’t seem all that outlandish. Regardless, it’s gratifying to see a work examine teen ostracism with a genuinely sensitive gaze, and without resorting to the grating clichés that seem to plague features with similar aims.