The well-trodden genre of the high-school comedy certainly seems like a strange area for the illusive, often difficult-to-define mumblecore subgenre to trawl into, but Azael Jacobs’ Terri, one such film, strangely succeeds with it. While neither ultra low-fi nor packed with non-professional actors, the film, much like the last major entry into the movement, the Duplass Brothers’ devilishly funny Cyrus (which also starred John C. Reilly), is well-produced and superbly acted, perhaps dictating a change in trends for the cinematic curiosity (or perhaps it’s just another fluke).
While the early glimpses at overweight social outcast Terri (Jacob Wysocki) might suggest this to be little more than a conventional comic drama about how unfair high school can be, Jacobs’ film is actually a far more self-aware, even postmodern stab at the subgenre. Instead of focusing on Terri’s awkward encounters with his classmates – though this does occur – it instead hinges on a more insular examination of our protagonist’s peculiar lifestyle. Its success is the result of a curious – and curiously good – central portrayal; we know Wysocki, with his deep voice and mature tone, is not 15 years old (he’s 21), but it doesn’t matter. Without the self-conscious precociousness that made films like Juno irritating and emotionally impenetrable despite a script with inherent worthiness, Terri is instead able to make of its titular protagonist a relatable, likeable individual rather than an ambling, sorry-for-himself loner, even if he does wear pyjamas everywhere for no particular reason.
A slow, brooding start introduces us to the isolation of Terri’s home life, where he lives with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted uncle James (Creed Bratton), but things really lift off once John C. Reilly shows up as Mr. Fitzgerald, the Assistant Principal at Terri’s school who juggles roles as pseudo-authoritarian and quasi-therapist for the school’s downtrodden kids. Reilly again reminds that while he’s best known as a wild comic force, he can rein it in when needed, and here, as with Cyrus, delivers an appropriately muted performance for a film with less-zany aspirations than his commercial Hollywood fare.
While Terri definitely traces along some lines we’ve seen before – his P.E. teacher picks on him, and other kids think he’s a dumb lug – it manages to distinguish itself primarily because Terri seems acutely aware of the methodology of the prototypical high school film, and resents becoming subject to its prejudices. He recognises the principal is trying to treat him as one of the oddballs you might see skulking around in the background of just about any film set in a school when, really, Terri is just misunderstood.
Things are without question at their best when Reilly and Wysocki are simply riffing off each other while sitting in an office; the dialogue is swathed in some deep, though rarely heavy, humanism, especially a mid-film discussion between the two about Fitzgerald’s terminally ill secretary, a brief exchange which packs in more honesty than most films do in their entirety. Reilly completely knocks it out of the park, while newcomer Wysocki isn’t far behind with a turn which is wholly sympathetic while avoiding clichés and trite sentiment. Creed Bratton also firmly delivers as Terri’s uncle, with appearances judiciously-sparse enough that his illness doesn’t come off as manipulatively-placed or excessive.
It very nearly seems to lose its edge when, for a film so keen on exposing the disingenuousness at the heart of human nature, it posits an unlikely romance between the odd protagonist and a cute classmate named Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), but it ultimately sticks to the subversion prior and ends on a touching, and more importantly, true note about how kids and adults really aren’t all that dissimilar once the fog of high school clears.
A winningly understated performance from John C. Reilly and a potentially star-making turn from lead Jacob Wysocki help place Terri’s firm finger on the pulse of the often senselessly cruel high school experience.
Terri has no UK release date set according to IMDB.