Never judge a book by its cover. How many times in life – especially as film critics – do we have to remind ourselves of that? The beginning of Azazel Jacob’s coming-of-age tale and hit at Sundance, about Terri, a misfit and confused teenager, feels almost, “been there, saw that.” Yet there’s a feeling the story is actually heading somewhere worthy of hanging on. That feeling does pay off, as Terri unravels into a sweet take on life. It’s like looking through a porthole and anticipating the vast ocean waiting for profound discoveries.
Although Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is not having a good time at school, it’s partly his own fault. He shows up in pajamas, never does his work, is often tardy, and because he’s big and lazy, gets picked on by other kids. The day Terri kicks his backpack all the way across the school yard suggests he’s also angry. Maybe that’s because his parents took a hike out of his life.
His home life is almost embarrassing. Terri is caretaker to his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who someday seems fine as he putters around the kitchen in their hovel of a house slapping beans on toast for dinner. Other times he’s so out of it Terri has to practically carry him to bed. When his uncle charges with him with setting mouse traps in the attic, Terri complies then wonders what to do with all the mice that fill the traps. Becoming somewhat resourceful, he takes them outside and leaves them on a log hopping some creature will find them snack bait. When he actually hides behind a tree and watches a bird devour them, Terri’s chest fills with pride as he feels a moment of achievement that he’s done a good thing. This is a clever script inclusion by screenwriter Patrick Dewitt and story-writer Jacob.
Terri is not the only odd one around. School principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), has his own way of handling problem students. But he sees something about Terri beyond the pajamas and lack of caring what others think about him. Fitzgerald continues to counsel Terri once a week, and the boy slowly moves through the process of surviving school.
Olivia Crocicchia & Jacob Wysocki
When a young girl is sexually exploited by her boyfriend during class in front of Terri and other female classmates, Terri is concerned. Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) then becomes ostracized by her classmates, and at one point thanks Terri for standing up for her. Eventually she and Chad (Bridger Zadina), another misfit, come to spend an evening at Terri’s house where they drink, take his uncle’s pills and participate in some nudity.
Bridger Zadina, Jacob Wysocki & John C. Reilly
Although nothing serious happens, it’s kind of a cathartic leap into manhood for Terri. He begins to realize that through unconventional means Mr. Fitzgerald really does want to help him. Yet it’s Terri who ends up helping Mr. Fitzgerald when he steps out of bounds. As the two slowly bond, they develop an amusing and touching friendship based on trust.
Reilly is a terrific actor who nails every performance, even ones in films I didn’t enjoy – like Cedar Rapids. Wysocki, a relatively new actor, delivers an amazing performance as Terri, never giving in to the heaviness of his situation but only silently observing and taking one step at a time toward manhood.
Terri may be a small movie, but it has a lot to say. You only have to pay attention to feel its message.
Photo Credits: ATO Pictures