Roaming the arid hills somewhere around Los Angeles, about a million miles from the stylized emotional teenage landscapes of John Hughes and those of his 21st-century descendants, we find the unlikely figure of Terri (Jacob Wysocki). Whether loping about, sitting reluctantly in class, or attending to his uncle James, who seems to be in the early, unpredictable stages of Alzheimer's, Terri goes stolidly about his routine bedecked in one pair of pajamas or another. "They're just comfortable on me," he explains to Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), his high school principal. That statement, in spirit as much as specifics, encapsulates Terri's attitude to an unpleasant fate: it's not rebellion so much as acceptance.
Unfortunately, Terri's unique fashion sense and record of tardiness and absence do not find acceptance with Mr. Fitzgerald. Terri is summoned to the office and takes his place among the high school misfits, all regarded with sardonic detachment by the principal's hacking Cerberus, Ms. Hamish (Mary Anne McGarry). Poor Ms. Hamish looks and sounds to be a-knock-knock-knockin' on heaven's door, a snap diagnosis which is later borne out. She, like many of the adults in the high school world of Terri, seems more than a little out of date.
With Mr. Fitzgerald, there is something in the more timeless manner of high school principals. As played by Mr. Reilly, there is the usual catalog of administrative flourishes: the stern look accompanied by intimidating tilt of head, the dramatic silence or judicious use of raised voice. All of this performance against a backdrop of thumtacked paperwork and motivational posters. This sort of flawed everyman is a perfect fit for Reilly and he hardly misses a beat. He might be the nominal head of the school, but Reilly, as ever, conveys the unsure boy in man's clothing, the principal's own sense of disbelief at times that the one-time high school fuckup is now in charge of the place.
Among the principal's first pronouncements to Terri, there is the inevitable dichotomy in which struggling leaders, espeically the quixotic employed in public schools, often have to trade: “Every year there are two groups of kids that stand out here … there’s the good-hearted kids and there’s the bad-hearted kids.” Typical of Mr. Fitzgerald's less-than-watertight philosophy, he touches all five fingers while delineating the moral map of the student body, pinky and thumb representing the good and bad extremes.
Mr. Fitzgerald assures our comfortably-clad friend that he sees him as one of the good-hearted kids, but Terri comes to realize that this is merely one of the bluffs with which the principal operates, the real dichotomy being kids who make the principal's life more difficult and kids that don't. Terri initially responds well to Mr. Fitzgerald's attention, the principal setting aside every Monday morning for the two to spend time together. This until Terri realizes that he's simply getting the the same treatment bestowed upon the school's misfits, whether it's the fat kid in the pajamas, the kid in the wheelchair or Chad (Bridger Zadina), a darkly puckish boy who's wont to pull his hair out of the scalp from the root, when not up to greater mischief. That kid, even Mr. Fitzgerald owns, belongs in a category of his own.
In a lesser film, the relationship of Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald would also tend toward either end of a familiar dichotomy: the defiant kid v. clueless authority figure (see The Breakfast Club), or one of facile buddyship. Instead, it's Terri - actually open enough despite his disappointments - challenging Mr. Fitzgerald and gradually granting his trust, while the principal is forced to offer more than his standby platitudes. One such instance occurs when Terri is upset to find out that Mr. Fitzgerald initially sees him as little more than little more than a misfit, much as he is seen by his classmates: "I'm treated like a monster because that's what I am to them. This morning they asked if I suck on my own breasts." The principal then produces a photo album which he assures Terri he's never shown anyone before. In it, we see pictures of the young Fitzgerald, shirtless, his face and torso awash with acne. He too was a monster. This brings the pair closer until Chad reveals to Terri, while the two loners are enjoying something of a bristly bonding experience of their own at Terri's house, that he got the "I've never shown this to anyone" line as well. This is another major setback on the road to an unlikely friendship on the part of student and principal, and also causes the biggest meltdown we see on the part of Terri when the truth is revealed to him, cutting short an obvious enough feel good episode with Chad.
What this story, conceived by director Azazel Jacobs and Patrick Dewitt and written by the latter, most deftly avoids is the increasingly rampant trend of high school revisionism in which teenagers are imbued with wit and sophistication unlikely in someone twice their age, even in enjoyable enough films like Rushmore or Easy A. In the 1980's we went back to win the Vietnam War; in the 21st century writers are going back to conquer high school.
Terri does offers a unique story. But despite his unusual living situation, girth and wardrobe (or lack thereof), Terri is allowed to be a real teenage boy. This in contrast to the more formal dress and pretensions of protagonists from the likes of Rushmore to the more recent Submarine. Terri might be more outwardly sensitive than the average kid at his high school, but there's no sign of extraordinary intelligence or style. We seem him reading Gulliver's Travels, but it seems as likely an assigment of an English class as any sort of refined feel for literature. And like many an adolescent boy, he fancies the pretty blonde girl; the one he sees on the athletic field, in locker-lined corridor, or in home economics; she's the very distant object of his longing.
When the girl, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) allows a boy - the appropriately dubbed Dirty Jack - to finger her in the Home Economics class and they are caught in flagrante delicto, she's quickly on an express elevator down to a level on the high school caste system even below that of fat kid in pajamas. This allows Terri to save her from transfer to another school by interceding with his fellow dude (an appellation the principal dispenses as clumsily as a slightly mysterious foreign currency), Mr. Fitzgerald, and offer Heather kindness at a time when virtually no one in the school is inclined to do so.
Even more than the ill-fated Ms. Hamish, home ec. teacher Mrs. Vick would seem to belong to another era. Perhaps this is in the anachronistic nature of Home Economics. And who knows - maybe there are still phys. ed. teachers who torment overweight kids with rope climbs they can never make, all the while spouting inspirational bromides of their own. But when Terri is subjected to such treatment, it tells us nothing about him or his life at school that we haven't already seen or can't easily imagine.
They gym class episode is unusual in a story in which so little plays out predictably, especially its complex (which is to say real) relationships. This is certainly true of Terri and his Uncle James (Creed Bratton of "Office" fame). It's unclear when and how Terri came to live with his uncle. And we can only assume that the relationship we see during the course of the film, affected as it is by the sometimes clouded mental state of the uncle, is a muted form of their long-term relationship. It tends to occur between the extremes of sentimentality and having Uncle James haunt his nephew's life like a demented ogre. Neither is the case.
Terri's dealings with his uncle demonstrate not only complexity in their relationship but in Terri himself. We see this when Terri is instructed to plant mouse traps in the attic. He does so with reluctance and we see the pained expression on his face while he lies in bed and hears the traps snap in the night. This Terri the sensitive soul. But when he disposes of the mice in a wooded area near their house, be becomes fascinated by their disappearance by day's end from a log on which the carcasses had been placed. Suddenly, as Terri looks on in wide-eyed wonder, any compunction about killing the mice is gone. He's amazed to see a falcon alight on the log and quickly fly away with one of his furry victims. More cheddar is acquired, more mice trapped, in hope of seeing the aloof bird of prey again. The experiment is cut short when Uncle James wonders why cheese has begun to appear on the shopping list even after the attic mice have been dispatched. Terri is forced to reveal the scene and nature of the crime, the reality of which causes his uncle to express disgust at his actions.
Both the slightly gleeful disbelief we see from Jacob Wysocki at the swooping of the falcon as well as the shame that quickly descends upon the young man at the disapproval of his uncle are among the few emotional departures we see from the otherwise phlegmatic Terri. Director Jacobs shrewdly cuts these reactions short. It's not that Wysocki demonstrates great range, but he's so quietly compelling through most of Terri that these rare outbursts have a built in power by the very nature of their contrast. Despite all the good supporting work, Jacob Wysocki is called upon to carry the film, and he does so.
Yet another instance of nuance from both Wysocki and Jacobs occurs with Terri's burgeoning frienship with the pretty outcast, Heather. I saw the trailer for the film and groaned at the implication that Terri would actually get the girl. It really doesn't work that way in high school or life thereafter. Fortunately, Azazel Jacobs had something far more interesting in mind. Heather expresses an interest in coming to Terri's house, presumably to get a firsthand look at his often out of it Uncle James. Terri is thrilled. An interesting, quite ambiguous moment takes place when Terri comes home some hours prior to the planned date and finds his uncle looking better and clearly more lucid than he's been in ages. Terri smiles when his uncle explains that he's having a good day and wants to take advantage of it with further reading. What's not entirely clear is whether Terri is pleased or disappointed. If it's Heather's morbid curiosity at the state of his uncle that is her main incentive for coming to his house, will the date be spoiled if there is no such spectacle? The scene is brief and the ambiguity fleeting.
Heather does pay her visit, but not before the ever hungry for attention, I-rebel-before-an-audience-therefore- I-am-Chad barges in. What follows, the teenager's long night's journey into day, is Terri's centerpiece. Over the course of the evening, Terri, Heather and Chad indulge in that most dangerous of adolescent behavior. It's not the consumption of alcohol, taking of drugs or ill-advised removal of clothing, although versions of all those things take place. As the drugs and drink have their effect, the three kids make themselves vulnerable. It's a long, often awkward sequence. The essence these scenes, if not the exact dialog and details, have the ring of truth about them. The quiet aftermath is as significant as the lack of predictable fireworks as the action sorts itself out.
Director and writer Azazel Jacobs hasn't exactly arrived in the mainstream with Terri, but he has stepped on to a larger stage. He's done so successfully and, it would appear, with sensibilities intact. This more than can be said for the Duplass brothers attempt to graduate to the big time from their Mumble Core beginnings with the muddled Cyrus. Terri is yet another movie about a high school outsider, but it bears little resemblence to most American films on the subject. Jacobs possesses an affinity for both characters and places messy and real. With the latter, it's the warm jumble of interior spaces common to his films, including Terri and his previous features, The GoodTimesKid and Momma's Man, domestic archaeolgies so rich with the sediment of lives lived that could hardly be replicated, even by the most talented of art directors.