When making a movie about teenage misfits, it can be tough to steer clear of indie cliché. A well-developed subgenre, there is no shortage of oddball savant stories littering Sundance’s and IFC’s film library. Remarkably, director Azazel Jacobs has delivered a modest and affecting portrait of quirky adolescent alienation that avoids the typical narrative ruts. Instead of presenting a troubled kid in need of confidence or a phony cautionary tale about remaining true to yourself, Terri explores what it means to remain confident about who you are even as the slow accumulation of life’s disappointments takes its toll.
Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an overweight, pajama-wearing teen, is a pretty emotionally secure person. He’s offbeat, to be sure, burdened with taking care of his uncle (who seems to suffer from Alzheimer’s), and given to muting his reactions to others. His guarded isolation seems to be an act of self-protection, as he remains quietly attentive to the explosive emotions and perplexing social behaviors of high school. Unfortunately, this low-key personality isn’t enough to stave off casual bullying from classmates or the intrusive attention of Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the school’s avuncular vice-principal. Determined to "help" Terri with his unidentified problems, Fitzgerald confronts what he perceives as Terri’s limited self-worth rather than learning anything about the teen’s real-life situation. This becomes an opportunity for Jacobs to illustrate how kids sometimes struggle to remain emotionally intact even as others project their insecurities onto them.
Convincing, if a bit too meandering and quirky, Jacobs’ film convincingly (and unhurriedly) develops Terri and Fitzgerald’s relationship, offering up scenes that bubble with fresh and unpredictable conversations. Mixing warm humor with low-key pathos, he honors his eponymous character with honest insight and empathy. Even as Fitzgerald confesses that most people have to fake their way through life, Terri comes to learn that our self-worth is actually defined by the decisions we make when no one is looking.
Less plausible is the friendship that blossoms between Terri and the sexually precocious high school pariah Heather (Olivia Crocicchia). Though she acts as an effective foil for Terri’s self-exploration, their sketchy relationship seems more a contrivance of plot than character. Similarly awkward is Terri’s camaraderie with the anti-social, scalp-picking Chad (Bridger Zadina). When the three come together in an evening of alcohol and sexual tension, the results are a mixed bag of insight and too-easy resolution.
Ultimately, Terri is the kind of movie that reels you in despite - not because of - its more whimsical impulses. With a tone and atmosphere that captures the feel of a lyrical fable, and a message that life is a moment-by-moment challenge to keep our sense of self intact, Jacobs has fashioned a strange but winning ode to personal grace —Jeff Meyers