Sometimes it’s not the premise that’s enthralling but the characters and how they evolve in a simple, nicely told story. In Azazel Jacobs‘ follow up to his 2008 Sundance hit Momma’s Man, a shy, obese, socially removed student (the Terri of the title), who lives in a warm, derelict house with his only caring relative and walks into class everyday in his pajamas, is befriended by his high-school assistant principal. Mr Fitzgerald, you see, has a habit for nurturing underachieving outcasts by scheduling weekly heart-to-heart meetings in his office.
John C Reilly is on hilarious (dare I say it) career best form as the kind of teacher you always wanted your teacher to be – kind-hearted, cool-headed, down to earth but ultimately flawed like the rest of us. He relates to Terri’s tardiness and strange behaviour (Terri has a penchant for rat catching too!) and talks to him on the same level as if he were an adult, being honest about life’s idiosyncrasies and offering advice on confronting adversaries without being the least bit condescending.
This coming of age comedy is full of those golden moments that make you sit up and smile, but doesn’t feel the least bit contrived or sentimental. And it’s the characters that make the most impression. There’s Chad (Bridger Zadina), an anxiety-ridden dropout who pulls out his hair, develops a bond with Terri and is the spitting image of a young Edward Furlong. Then there’s Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who on the surface is the archetypal popular pin-up-girl – who allows her boyfriend to finger fuck her in class – but emerges as someone sweet, innocent and emotionally complex. Along the way we also meet Mr Fitzgerald’s dotty, on-the-brink-of-death secretary (played by the far younger Mary Anne McGarry) and Terri’s warm, charming dementia suffering uncle (The Office’s Creed Bratton). And the titular character (played to a hilt by Jacob ‘watch this space’ Wysocki) also defies convention. Sure he’s an outsider, obese and distantly removed and teased by other schoolers for his “double ds” but he’s not the traditional bullied overweight kid of countless other comedies. He’s a likeable, strangely alluring lad who is prone to sudden bursts of unpredictable behaviour and who people in class actually want to talk to.
The climatic scene brings the three main school kids together at Terri’s home for an alcohol and prescription drug fuelled night of sweet adolescent antics, impulses and potent emotional revelations.
And this is the agreeably offbeat and alluring flavour of the film, which draws a fine line between comedy and pathos, and where character perceptions are continuously challenged and events veer off into quirky, oblique and unconventional directions. As in life people aren’t as easy, or as straight-forward to work out as they may on the surface seem. Terri is about people not trying to make sense of the world or look for reflection but who are just getting on with life and revelling in the unexpected adventures along the way, then realising they share the same profound insecurities as everyone else. Surprising, emotionally uplifting, sharp and bittersweet Terri is essential viewing and has an ending that feels warm, real and suitably satisfying.
Oliver Pfeiffer, our man in Oz attending the Sydney Film Festival. Check out all his reviews HERE.
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