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Terri (2011)

18 Oct

John C. Reilly belongs to a school of actors who have managed to circumvent the beauty bar that Hollywood operates, breaking through the aesthetic glass ceiling by dint of their offbeat charisma. Like the great character actors that preceded them – Robert Duvall, Peter Boyle, Bruce Dern, et al. – they are called upon to play the parts the stars balk at, using their unorthodox magnetism to their favour. Alongside the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and William H. Macy, Reilly has risen through the ranks of indie cinema to become a recognisable face to drastically opposing audiences; equally at ease as a player in big-budget projects like ‘Chicago’ (2002) and ‘The Aviator’ (2004) as when portraying the demented Dr. Steve Brule in Dadaist comedy duo Tim and Eric’s ‘Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’

‘Terri’ is director Azazel Jacobs’ sixth feature, having built a formidable reputation with films like ‘The GoodTimeKid’ (2005) and ‘Momma’s Man’ (2008). Its eponymous central character is an overweight fifteen-year-old boy (Jacob Wysocki) who cares for his manic-depressive uncle (Creed Bratton) between dealing with the ridicule and isolation of high school. Terri is taken under the wing of Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), the school’s unconventional principal, who is concerned by Terri’s constant tardiness, slipping grades, refusal to participate and insistence on attending school in pyjamas. Through his weekly counselling sessions with Mr. Fitzgerald, Terri meets Chad (Bridger Zadina), a fellow troubled teen, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with an ostracised member of the popular clique, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia).

‘Terri’ is notable primarily for Wysocki’s central performance, which ranks amongst the best of the year; all the more startling for coming out of nowhere. Wysocki exhibits uncommon sensitivity and acuity in his depiction of Terri, laying himself bare as a young man who is painfully attuned to his emotions, lacking that crucial layer of skin required to endure the daily battle, cripplingly self-aware in the face of his tormentors. The sadness and resignation etched on his face, his posture slumped and defeated, Wysocki conveys the full extent of his character’s inner torment. Though his choices will obviously be limited by his appearance, Wysocki has all the attributes to carve out a niche for himself in the indies.

The exchanges between Wysocki and Reilly are the film’s highlight; like Officer Jim Kurring in ‘Magnolia’ (1999), Fitzgerald struggles to exude an air of authority in light of his discovery that ‘life is a mess’. The antithesis of Sean Maguire in ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997), Fitzgerald is not an inspiring figure; he doesn’t possess the key to unlocking Terri’s potential; he can’t make everything better; his advice is often ill-conceived; he can see what lies ahead for Terri, but knows he is powerless to prevent it. Zadina ably taps into the fragility and insecurity that drives the unhinged Chad, and though her character is amongst the least defined and rewarding, Crocicchia convincingly delineates Heather’s fall from grace. Elsewhere, Tim and Eric’s own Tim Heidecker makes a single-scene appearance as a snide, sadistic gym teacher; and stand-up Eddie Pepitone is afforded the opportunity to briefly showcase his poetically acerbic brand of comedy.

Mandy Hoffman’s saturnine score is affecting without providing emotional signposts, as is so often the case with film music; Julia Shirar’s sound design adroitly elevates ambient noise to great effect, and the nebulous soft focus articulates Terri’s absorption. Jacobs’ camera replicates Terri’s languorous gait, limiting itself to gentle pans and zooms, frequently hanging back as if embarrassed by what it is capturing. While there are comic elements to ‘Terri’, its humour is such that those looking for belly laughs will be left wanting; if, however, you enjoy a well-observed, perfectly paced and deftly performed study of the marginalized, then ‘Terri’ will satisfy. Patrick Dewitt’s screenplay skews the mawkishness that holds sway over the classroom drama, breathing new life into its tired conventions with its echoes of ‘Kes’ (1969). Though it flags somewhat in the final third, ‘Terri’ is a commendable effort from Jacobs; positing that we are all buffeted by the capricious tides of approval, that we never stop being scared children.

 

Director Azazel Jacobs on the set of 'Terri'.

  

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