Azazel Jacobs’ “Terri” belongs to that subcategory of high-school coming-of-age stories that deal with misfits, the kind of tale that unfolds between detention hall and the principal’s office while the cool kids are seen kissing cheerleaders on the fringes. Jacobs’ slow-building portrait of a late bloomer makes this poetic pic an outsider even among outsider movies. This one focuses on a gentle giant named Terri, whose feelings run deeper than those of the virginity-obsessed teens who typically populate such pics, suggesting room for a reasonably healthy specialty run for ATO’s pre-Sundance acquisition, particularly among young adults.
Though the film’s open-hearted tone springs directly from Tobias Datum’s beautiful, sun-bright lensing and Mandy Hoffman’s soulful, empathy-inducing score (both collaborators are veterans of Jacobs’ “Momma’s Man”), “Terri” is virtually impossible to imagine without the discovery of Jacob Wysocki, who plays the oversized adolescent at the story’s center — a naive little boy peering out from within an unwieldy body. Abandoned by his parents and left to live with his ailing Uncle James (Creed Bratton, best known as the lecherous old coot on NBC’s “The Office”), Terri is a loner gradually drifting away from his peers, as evidenced by his decision to start wearing pajamas to school.
Between his androgynous name and soft, spineless demeanor, Terri is ripe for bullying (despite the fact that, with a bit more charisma, he could easily be the class favorite). When the cruel kids tease him about his weight, we sense Terri would rather be invisible, which he practically is already to girls, who both intrigue and intimidate him. No wonder Terri routinely shows up late for school, withdrawing into his own world and fixating on such things as the rodents in his attic. (The film’s freshest moment finds Terri staking out the spot in the woods where he empties the mousetraps to watch the falcon that comes to feed there.)
Recognizing a trouble case in the making, the school’s vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), reaches out to Terri, booking him for a series of Monday-morning counseling sessions. While Reilly clearly recognizes the comedy inherent in his role, rather than letting his character’s goofier qualities run wild, he focuses the perf on Fitzgerald’s sincere desire to help Terri find his place. By singling him out, however, Fitzgerald has inadvertently grouped Terri in with the school’s other problem children — spastic Chad (Bridger Zadina) and sexually precocious Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) — who become Terri’s new support network.
Jacobs’ filmmaking has advanced on myriad levels since “Momma’s Man,” but it is Reilly’s involvement that serves as the most prominent indicator of a more mainstream sensibility. Working from novelist Patrick deWitt’s tenderly comical script, Jacobs patiently lets the film unfold (perhaps too patiently for some tastes), inviting us into the head of his socially awkward subject.
Unlike the teen characters in so many other coming-of-age stories, Terri isn’t necessarily wise beyond his years. In fact, few things seem to intimidate this introverted young man more than the prospect of communication, which is one of the reasons his sessions with Mr. Fitzgerald are such an important part of Terri’s personal development. Passing notes with Heather in class, Terri can’t even find the words to express how he’s feeling; by extension, the night she comes over to hang out at Terri’s house feels like the most terrifying moment of his life to date — no less uncomfortable for auds looking on.
“Terri” may not be as personal as Jacobs’ earlier work, but it feels every bit as genuine. The helmer’s style, which finds poetry in cluttered, overgrown environments and potentially embarrassing situations, is perfectly suited to the material. Indeed, the filmmaking gives far more reason to get excited than the script, with what little originality there is to be found in yet another misfit teen story emerging from the combination of Jacobs’ sensitive approach and Wysocki’s good-natured performance, which invites us to laugh without compromising the character’s fragile dignity.