MOVIE REVIEW: Terri
Director Azazel Jacobs examines the lives of three very different outcasts
In coming-of-age films, social hierarchies put an unfairly high value on shiny hollow surfaces. The messy exterior layers of the outcast, which usually mask something far more elaborate underneath, is too much to bear for their judgmental peers. The impending battle for “normalcy” creates monsters in both the heads of the teasers and those relentlessly being teased. Great films like Ghost World and Fast Times at Ridgemont High depict these angst-ridden struggles, creating a nuanced cinematic headspace for fringe characters to release their compressed emotions in unique and funny ways.
Terri contemplates the dilemma of surfaces and interiors, yet feels completely in tune with its own unique rules of the teenage game. Director Azazel Jacobs not only examines the lives of three very different outcasts, but also creates an emotional and philosophical drawbridge between them and an older generation of societal “monsters.” By connecting seemingly separate experiences, Jacobs shows how the search for identity never really stops; it just grows more personal.
Shot in a very fluid, hand held approach that tends to linger on the monochromatic elements of every frame, Jacobs’ film follows Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an overweight teenager who is slowly slipping into a dark emotional malaise. We see his days of drudgery, quiet moments of isolation other mainstream movies would pass by. The opening shot of Terri half submerged in a tub helps clarify his current social status: too big for this fishpond, yet uncertain of where to stretch his growing legs. He takes care of a sick uncle, wears pajamas to school, and laboriously roams through the film without much direction. That is until he gets called into Vice Principal Fitzgerald’s (John C. Reilly) office and is forced to meet with him once a week. The following exchanges begin to mold Terri's perspective, through friendship not fear.
The honest relationship between Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald is something rare in American films. Instead of solely basing their talks on sarcasm and jokes (although both are prevalent) to mask Terri’s confusion, Jacobs roots their conversations in honest communication, the art of listening. Adulthood is not seen as a weakness or a pejorative and teenage angst is not some kind of currency used for sympathy or redemption. Each experience is a mirror to the other, different sections of the same vibrant thread.
As Terri’s conversations with Mr. Fitzgerald evolve into dark areas of teenage experience, he befriends a grandstanding punk named Chad (Bridger Zadina) and a disgraced “It Girl” named Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), beginning a strange relationship with each where the themes of the coming-of-age film take on new shades of grey. Toward the end of Terri, the trio share an amazingly awkward scene in a rundown shed outside of Terri’s house, one of those life-altering confluence of events that tests teenage resolve in all the most uncomfortable ways. Through his subtle pacing and deconstruction of shallow surfaces, Jacobs avoids judging his characters. He disavows traditional melodramatic aesthetics like constricting camera angles or heightened musical cues, allowing Terri and his friends a sense of dignity while they discover their weaknesses and strengths.
But none of this could be possible without the presence of Reilly, an actor whose eyes and mouth seem to dance the tango every time he speaks. Reilly grooves through scenes with his wise but conflicted words, developing a verbal action plan for Terri’s escape from mental slavery. Even more impressive, though, is Fitzgerald’s inventive and personal approach to engaging Terri’s perspective on life. He teaches Terri to see the world’s curves, to see beyond the flat surfaces of high school that are so defined by pop culture and conformist methodologies. Fitzgerald actually looks like he enjoys the process of teaching, and Terri, Chad, and Heather respond to his enthusiasm.
Anyone who’s taught before knows that molding young minds is a difficult and precipitous process, but it’s one Jacobs and his wonderful cast treat with the utmost respect. Where most teen films would just see monsters, Terri sees confused, curious, tender, angry, and hopeful people wishing someone would listen.