“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses, who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
As we know, high school can be a difficult and challenging place for even the most socially adaptive student. For those who are different in one way or another, it can be misery, and alienated students do not always find a compassionate counselor or friend to steer them through the tough times. In the movies, however, it is often a different story. We have seen several films recently about teens that have lost their way but somehow find the perfect mentor to support them. The latest example of this is Terri, a new film by Azazel Jacobs, whose 2008 Momma’s Man, was a work of rare honesty about a recently married man who falls into a psychological paralysis that keeps him from accepting the reality of his adult life.
Though the genre of teen misfits has been done before, Terri looks at the situation from a different vantage point and the result is a film of unusual freshness. Based on a screenplay Jacobs wrote with novelist Patrick Dewitt, the movie brings together an unlikely friendship between Terri (Jacob Wysocki), a heavily oversized parentless teenager who lives with his Uncle James (Creed Bratton) who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, Chad (Bridger Zadina), a skinny, androgynous-looking youth with a high-pitched squeaky voice who directs his anger towards himself by pulling his hair out, and Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), an attractive girl who has developed an unfortunate reputation around school for inappropriate sexual acting out.
Terri is consistently late to school and comes to class dressed in pajamas because he feels they are more comfortable. He is constantly teased and bullied by those who do not understand (and perhaps never will) the meaning of empathy. His behavior, while otherwise normal, can be bizarre. When his uncle asks him to set traps for mice in their attic, Terri takes the traps out into a wooded area near his suburban home and gleefully watches the dead mice being torn to shreds by devouring falcons. His tardiness and odd behavior draws the attention of the school’s vice-principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) who sets up sessions with Terri each week for counseling. Attempting to play the role of buddy rather than authority figure, Fitzgerald calls Terri “dude,” uses “hip” language, and exchanges high-fives, but his behavior often feels strained.
Terri learns to appreciate the attention he is given, however, and, though he is tight lipped at the beginning of the meetings, he slowly begins to open up and express his feelings. Fitzgerald also has his problems at home and is not averse to sharing them with Terri. His sharing about his personal life, however inappropriate it may be for a school administrator, does provide a more level playing field and a closer relationship grows between the two people struggling to make sense of the world. An awkward late night party at Terri’s house filled with drugs, alcohol, and sexual experimentation could have become a disaster, except for Terri’s new found sense of self that allows him to know intuitively when to back off.
There are few dramatic movements in Terri, no sudden insights, and no startling epiphanies backed by the swelling chords of an orchestra. There is, rather, simply a growing ability of the characters to see beyond their differences to discover their common humanity. While the question of what Terri can do to lose some weight is oddly never brought up either by his mentor or his friends, Terri is a sweet, tender, and very observant film about young people coming to terms with the reality of their being different. It is not a cruel film in the slightest but one that conveys a sincere affection for its troubled characters, and the natural performances of Wysocki, Zadina, and Crocicchia make it a film to remember and cherish.