To call Terri an off-beat coming-of-age tale would be an understatement. For much of the film's runtime I felt as though I was drifting through a slightly surrealist dream about teen angst - one populated with familiar faces that had filtered into my subconscious via late-night cable TV viewing, and of course, a central figure (the titular Terri) who seemed almost too strange to exist in the conscious world.
Is the dream a nightmare? No. But it is one that might leave some viewers feeling like dreamers in a daze, wondering what pre-bed snack resulted in such a strange experience.
The film centers around the titular character, Terri (Jacob Wysocki), a lonely plus-sized teen living with his semi-demented uncle (Creed Bratton of The Office fame). The two reside in a woodland house that looks like the combination of a Hobbit's shire and something out of an episode of Hoarders, with Terri forced to play the parent role in the relationship, due to his uncle's mental illness.
Terri's behavior earns him every letter of his misfit label, if for no other reason than the fact that his wardrobe consists of nothing but pajama suits (the only time he really feels comfortable). An obsession with killing the mice infesting his house (and then, using their bodies as bait for exotic bird-watching) puts Terri on the radar of the perennially-upbeat Principal Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly). Unbeknownst to Terri, Mr. Fitzgerald makes it his mantra to befriend all the misfit kids in school, including Chad (Bridger Zadina), a skinny little weirdo who looks like he might strangle cats in his free time.
Terri becomes the latest reluctant addition to Mr. Fitzgerald's collection of misfits, and finds himself suddenly surrounded by potential comrades-in-oddness like Chad. This turn in fortune is only compounded when the "hot girl" in school, Heather Miles (Olivia Crocicchia), takes a hard fall off the high school social ladder and finds herself at the bottom rung, with only fellow outcasts like Terri to turn to. But in the quest to be someone better, Terri soon learns that he may be happy just being himself.
The film was directed by Azazel Jacobs, who has gained a growing amount of buzz on the indie film circuit for movies like Nobody Needs to Know and The GoodTimesKid. Jacobs' strength has been his ability to make unique visions of tried-and-true film conventions (family bonds, teen angst), using bare-bones indie film tactics to create equally unique worlds built predominately on mood and atmosphere, rather than the kinetic momentum of plot. Terri certainly continues this trend.
Some viewers (who typically avoid indie movie fare) may walk away with the feeling that "nothing happened" in this film. Most of the development is resigned to the characters and their relationships, rather than A-to-B-to-C plot points. In his small town life, Terri lives the same routines day in and day out (and we watch these routines occur day in and day out), with the only changes being a growing circle of friends and a better sense of self. For some people that will be enough - others may not be as satisfied. It really depends on the tastes of the viewer.
What helps this film stand out from the overcrowded coming-of-age sub-genre are the characters and the performers who bring them to life. John C. Reilly continues to make an impact doing off-beat indie fare with comedic undertones (see: Cyrus, Cedar Rapids) and his character, Principal Fitzgerald, certainly keeps things lively with his oddball-yet-affable personality. Jacob Wysocki pulls off a similar feat, making Terri every bit as complicated as a real teen - sensitive, naive, innocent, mischievous, weird, insecure and (sweatily) charming. Seeing how Wysocki has far less experience than his co-star, the young actor deserves extra credit for the performance, as well as his strong chemistry with Reilly.
Having only seen Creed Bratton play the creepy...Creed Bratton on The Office, it's almost surreal watching the actor play a different and far more dramatic character in Terri. We only get the most subtle brush strokes, but Terri's Uncle James is hinted as being a serious musician whose talent was shattered by an early onset of dementia. Bratton plays the character as a lost-in-the-fog shadow of a man (think Leonard Shelby in Memento), with strong undertones of both melancholy and parental affection in those moments when he's coherent enough to remember all that he is, and all that he's lost. The actor surprises here, showcasing more range than I would have ever thought possible for him.
Olivia Crocicchia and Bridger Zadina do equally good jobs portraying Terri's newfound friends, Heather and Chad. Both young actors (aided by the quality writing of Jacobs and Patrick Dewitt) make their respective teens just as three-dimensional as Terri is. Their performances only get stronger and deeper in the third act of the film, when Heather, Terri, and Chad orchestrate a mischievous (and revealing) overnight party session. It's rare (and refreshing) to watch a film that avoids the cliched batch of stock high school characters - and if nothing else, Terri certainly gets the authenticity of small-town teen existence right on many counts.
If you enjoy films that place the experience of the journey over the pressure to arrive at some destination, then Terri has a rich stable of characters for you to spend time with. If slower, more subtle, indie fare is not your thing, then you might be more entertained by a more traditional teen angst flick like Superbad.
If you're still on the fence, check out the trailer for Terri below:
Terri opens in select cities on June 30, 2011.