***½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras C+
starring Jacob Wysocki, Olivia Crocicchia, Creed Bratton, John C. Reilly
screenplay by Patrick deWitt
directed by Azazel Jacobs
by Angelo Muredda On paper, Terri looks insufferable. From its unfortunate trailer, which sells a uniform-outfitted protagonist and whimsical, quintessentially Sundance plot in which a young misfit bonds with a fortysomething man (John C. Reilly, naturally) and feels the first pangs of young love, you'd think it was assembled from the discarded organs of Wes Anderson movies past. What's most surprising about Terri, though, is its skepticism towards the calculated quirkiness of botched American indies about social rejects. When people behave strangely in this film, it isn't the result of a screenwriter groundlessly insisting on his creations' idiosyncrasy (Natalie Portman is thankfully not on hand to make a series of unique sounds when dialogue dries up), but rather a token of what Reilly, in one of many lovely moments, affectionately calls the "unknowability" of people. That curiosity about the unusual and sometimes dark impulses that decent individuals wrestle with makes director Azazel Jacobs's first feature since 2008's Momma's Man something special: a humane portrait of people who speak in fits and starts, throw inappropriate temper tantrums, and awkwardly test their sexual boundaries. Most importantly, it doesn't presume to have its young protagonists figured out. The result is an affecting twist on the coming-of-age narrative, as well as a rare film about teenagers that's in no hurry to turn the amorphousness of late adolescence into something solid and prescriptive.
Written by Booker Prize longlisted novelist Patrick deWitt, the picture does a good job of balancing conventional situations with uncommonly rich characters. Terri, played with remarkable sensitivity and alertness by newcomer Jacob Wysocki, is an overweight, pyjama-clad loner who's chronically late for class and worn down from caring for his uncle (a moving Creed Bratton, far from his character on "The Office")--who seems to be in the early stages of Alzheimer's--in their ramshackle home on the outskirts of town. His mountain of tardy slips and persistent teasing from classmates attracts the attention of concerned assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), who schedules weekly check-ins to keep him on track. To Terri's dismay, he soon discovers he's just one of the many high-school "monsters" Fitzgerald has taken under his wing out of his perhaps over-attuned sensitivity to the damaged. Nonetheless, Terri finds himself in good company with fellow monsters like diminutive and very angry Chad (Bridger Zadina), who's prone to tearing out his own hair, and Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), a golden girl relegated to Hester Prynne status after an accidentally-public sexual episode in home ec.
While the outline certainly resembles any number of teen films about an outcast tentatively integrating into a community of fellow losers, the details set Terri apart, as does its leisurely pace, which affords cinematographer Tobias Datum some lyrical moments where we follow Terri as he wanders at his own speed through the woods on his way to school. Jacobs and deWitt push their protagonist into surprisingly ambiguous ground early on, and the plot stretches nicely to accommodate these excursions. An early wordless sequence, for instance, beautifully captures Terri's mixture of guilt and possible bloodlust--as Fitzgerald unhelpfully calls it--regarding the attic-dwelling rodents his uncle asks him to dispatch with mousetraps. Hesitant at first, Terri increasingly relishes his grisly task, and Wysocki renders his morbid interest and later shame at being found out with great poignancy: When he's disconcerted by Fitzgerald's suggestion that he's good-hearted in the next scene, you buy his torment over the suspicion that his alleged monstrosity runs deeper than his skin. It's a smart sideways route into the ethical territory the rest of the film explores more directly--and it's the first real sign that this familiar material is going to be handled in a novel way.
Jacobs also has the sense to develop his adult characters, a welcome change from recent summer fare like Super 8, which establishes its teens as intelligent largely by treating grownups like the squawking faceless blanks from "Peanuts." Reilly is particularly strong as a man who takes his job, especially the responsibility of guiding impressionable youth through social crises, seriously. He shines in a powerful if somewhat overwritten monologue about the hypocrisies and mundane betrayals that are a necessary by-product of doing one's best. Ultimately, however, it is the teens who ground Terri in something compelling and real. The young leads make the most of a masterful, prolonged, and deeply squirmy climactic scene where they bond and circle each other warily over some whiskey and antidepressants in Terri's garage. "You look like an adult over there," Terri tells Heather once his buzz sets in and his confidence begins to soar, and there's real tenderness in Jacobs's snapshot of three kids on the verge of adulthood, flirting with a level of intimacy they're not yet emotionally equipped for.
Terri is admittedly not perfect--at times, its goofier laughs feel out of place beside the tougher material. And as moving as Crocicchia is in the film's major set-piece, her character is underwritten in comparison with the men, making her rapport with the chivalric Terri feel somewhat lopsided; it's not clear, for example, whether she finds his protective gestures towards her entirely sweet or also a bit creepy. All the same, this is a moving and, to use Fitzgerald's criteria, good-hearted film that has the audacity to respect its characters, along with the sensibility to ease up on plotting their life course before they've made it out of high school. It's a delight.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Fox brings Terri to Blu-ray in an exquisite 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. The image is filmic though almost, despite the picture having been shot in 35mm, grain-free. Nevertheless, I'd say that any denoising took place during the grading process and not in the transfer suite, where it tends to manifest itself as digital Vaseline. This is a tastefully clean presentation, sharp enough to draw attention to a two-shot of Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly about 23 minutes in wherein the focus puller has missed both actors by a hair, detailed enough that you can tell the difference between the schmutz and the mouse turds mingling on the floor of Terri's attic. The presentation fosters an appreciation of DP Tobias Datum's magic-hour lighting schemes, colour definition is excellent beneath an amber glaze, and if contrast doesn't have a great deal of dynamic range, the drop-off in black isn't so steep as to crush at the lowest end of the spectrum. An attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track nicely showcases a modest mix, one that's hemispheric but stereophonic in the fashion of most contemporary comedies, dramas, and hybrids--like Terri--of the two.
Extras are limited to an 8-minute block of three deleted scenes (SD, in 4:3 letterbox) and a making-of featurette called "A Look Inside Terri" (10 mins., HD). The former, which finds the gym teacher singling out Terri for more torment and includes an ugly moment of Fitzgerald's patience for Chad's peccadilloes wearing out, shows judicious editing decisions, while the latter feels overly precious in its mix of black-and-white interviews and colour B-roll. Barton Fink-haired director Azazel Jacobs admits to fretting over the amount of fun that was being had on set. It's that kind of piece. Trailers for Brand New Day, Skateland, and the studio's Blu-ray slate cue up on startup. Originally published: October 17, 2011.
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