Coming of age stories are as popular at Sundance as superhero films are at the multiplex, and though “Terri” doesn’t bring anything new to the genre, it does have its charms. Terri (newcomer Jacob Wysocki) is an outsider, a lonely overweight teen who lives in a small town and takes care of his Uncle James (Creed Bratton from “The Office”) who is suffering from some form of dementia. After Uncle James orders him to put mousetraps in the attic, he develops an unexpected fondness for killing mice and it becomes his daily joy. Outside of this private pleasure, Terri has completely given up on himself, resorting to wearing his pajamas to school because they’re comfortable. Anyone in high school willing to put a target like that on their back implies that things probably can’t get any worse. After an outburst in class, following some routine bullying, he’s sent to see the Vice Principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) who decides in order to help Terri that they should meet weekly to discuss what’s going on in his life.
It’s this unlikely friendship that is the heart of the film. While not many of us were Terri in high school, everyone knew somebody like him. Wysocki doesn’t overplay the character’s shyness, which could have become tiresome, and instead finds the right balance making him an innocent that you can really empathize with. He is so believable in the role it was fairly shocking to see him get up confidently after the film to speak about his improv background. Reilly, as usual, is absolutely hilarious in the role. As many times as you’ve seen him play this type of character he still brightens up the film every time he is onscreen. It must have been torture for Wysocki to resist riffing with Reilly in their scenes together but it’s that tension that makes those scenes great. Wysocki is all bottled up emotion and Reilly is uncorked enthusiasm.
Things become complicated after Terri finds out that Mr. Fitzgerald has weekly meetings with several other students who are all either mentally retarded or mentally disturbed. One of these kids is Chad (Bridger Zadina), an undersized classmate of Terri’s who is constantly getting into trouble. Zadina does good work as Chad, who you want to leave most every time he shows up onscreen due to a cringeworthy habit of pulling out chunks of his own hair leaving bald spots of scalp. (Seriously, it’s disgusting.) Additionally, Terri witnesses an incident involving the beautiful and popular Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) that finds her ostracized from her friends and only Terri stands by her. It’s a little unbelievable to think that all of her friends would abandon her but Crocicchia really nails every moment and is able to play both sides of Heather, both confident and fragile.
Director Azazel Jacobs, a rail thin NYC native who looks like he could be a member of The Dandy Warhols, couldn’t be further away from his leading character. His previous effort, 2008’s “Momma’s Man”, was a semi-autobiographical film about a grown man who moves back in with his family and starred Jacob’s real-life parents. For this film he said he was interested in doing something completely different and chose this script by friend Patrick Dewitt. Despite Jacobs' outsiders perspective, he still paints Terri completely sympathetically and never as an object of ridicule. Jacobs has a good handle on the tone of the material, keeping the film feeling very realistic while also bringing out the humor. The music and cinematography are also both very good, but a few of the films darker moments unfortunately brought the film down.
A sequence towards the end of the film has Terri, Heather and Chad drinking whiskey and taking some of Uncle James pills in Terri’s shed. It’s an unexpectedly tense sequence that goes on a little too long where scrawny Chad comes off more sexually threatening than possibly intended. It also strays too far from the relationship between Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald which is the glue holding the movie together. Jacobs said after the film that he thought the scene was interesting because you’re hoping that Terri doesn’t get together with Heather but this writer was still rooting for him to do just that.
The film can best be commended for not going where you think it’s going to, (Terri gets a makeover, Terri gets a girlfriend, etc.) but without some kind of resolution the film feels slight. “Terri” is an enjoyable coming-of-age film with standout performances by Wysocki and Reilly. But a few of the darker sequences, along with the general feeling that you’ve seen this story before, might keep it from being a larger success. [C+]