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Photograph courtesy of ATO Pictures
It’s not likely that you’ll mistake Terri for the garden-variety teen outsider film that features either a) a lovable loser; b) a fatalistic loner; or c) a successfully self-reliant outcast. While the eponymous character, played subtlety by newcomer Jacob Wysocki, looks the part of any of the above descriptions, it only takes a few minutes to see that he eludes any such pat characterizations.
The camera’s gaze is unwavering throughout, holding steady in the opening scene on Terri, lying prone in the tub, calmly negotiating household chores with his ailing Uncle James (Creed Bratton, cast effectively against type) through the bathroom door. Making his way through the school day, Terri bears up under run-of-the-mill high school cruelty that besets anyone who stands out. In his case, Terri not only wears his pajamas to school daily, he is also grossly overweight, his “man boobs” ripe for classmates’ grab-assing antics. This unflinching camera insists viewers look at Terri directly, but it cannot guarantee that we see him. Only the narrative’s careful unfolding enables viewers to give Terri his due.
Terri is singled out for attention not only by taunting classmates but also by well-meaning Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly practically playing himself, which is a good thing); a vice principal who divides students into the “good-hearted” and “bad-hearted,” Mr. Fitzgerald attempts to escort Terri through this seemingly difficult period. Mr. Fitzgerald’s clichéd intervention fails in its view of Terri (seeing him exactly as the film challenges viewers not to), but he does ultimately serve as a lifeline for Terri during this transitional period. We might argue that Terri does the same for Mr. Fitzgerald, but director Azazel Jacobs keeps the film’s focus firmly on Terri’s development, and viewers gain only minor glimpses into Mr. Fitzgerald’s own burgeoning life crisis.
It’s hard to separate Terri from all the baggage we impose on him, filmic and personal. Watching closely, we see with increasing clarity that while Terri is not all right exactly, he is not burdened with the same weight we bring to our viewing. As he walks into homeroom, settling into the too-small desk, Terri releases a big sigh: Resignation? Despair? Ennui? Frankly the response seems entirely appropriate, whatever motivates it. The same sigh seems to punctuate Terri’s progress through life: not fatalistic or depressed, but clearly not altogether thrilled to be here either. When asked by Fitzgerald how he’s doing, Terri replies: “It’s getting harder to be able to...” but is interrupted before he can complete his thought, overrun by Fitzgerald’s misguided certainty that he can fill the gap that threatens to overwhelm Terri’s life.
The camera’s not the only gaze that is unwavering, Terri’s gaze doesn’t flinch while interacting with everyone around him. It’s almost unnerving how calmly, trustingly direct his gaze remains whether being fed Mr. Fitzgerald’s counselor babble, misfit Chad’s (Bridger Zadina) inexplicable rants, or crush Heather’s (Olivia Crocicchia in another edgy role after her turn in Nailed) blunt advances. His gaze isn’t confrontational or voyeuristic but is simply open, free of irony or defense, a remarkable feat given how his life has gone so far.
Not naively unguarded, but not closed off, Terri is instead sincere in his friendly overtures to the truly messed up Chad (who suffers most visibly but clearly not exclusively from trichotillomania) and defense of Heather, ostracized after being caught in a compromising position in home ec. This is the magic of Terri: he has remained somehow open to the world, to overtures of friendship, to love, and maybe even to sex. And most importantly to himself, sagely realizing that he’s not “ready for that stuff yet.”
The film’s structure is fairly traditional—setting, complication, crisis, resolution—but its narrative takes greater risks. Terri chooses to place his trust in these three, to see that they are doing the best they can in an inevitably messy situation. He isn’t blind to his friends’ flaws, but he doesn’t let those flaws overwhelm their attractions.
Finally though, Terri can trust himself, the most grounded person in the film regardless of how messed up he may seem on the outside. His final walk home from school shows him recovering from a long night of firsts, smiling simply and joyfully, sun on his face, spring in his step.