Indie Coming of Age Film Deserves Attention
Thursday, July 14, 2011
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Terri."
Growing up is never easy. But for Terri life seems especially difficult at the moment. He lives with his medicated uncle who may be suffering from Alzheimer's.
Terri: Feeling better Uncle James?
Uncle James: Up and down. I'm going to the market to get some traps and some cheddar. You can set the traps before bedtime.
Terri: But I don't want to do that.
Uncle James: Well if I set 'em I'll forget to check.
Terri: I can remind you.
Uncle James: No Terri, you have no chores, you have no one breathing down your neck, you lead a prince's life, you know that?
School's no better for the introverted and overweight teen. It's bad enough that the kids bully him but now the somewhat creepy Assistant Principal Fitzgerald has taken an interest in him.
Mr. Fitzgerald: Your grades are dropping, your teachers are telling me you won't participate in the lessons, you've begun to wear pajamas everyday. Do you understand how from my perspective those things could be categorized as red flags?
Another red flag is the somewhat sadistic pleasure Terri takes in feeding dead mice to birds of prey in the woods outside of Los Angeles.
Terri: It's like I went crazy or something. I've never done anything like that before.
Mr. Fitzgerald: It's bloodlust Dude. It could be a hard habit to break. They say once you get started in on it.
Terri: I think I'm gonna become a vegetarian.
Mr. Fitzgerald: Whoa, wait a minute now.
Terri and Principal Fitzgerald form an odd bond even though Terri quickly realizes that Fitzgerald has problems of his own and relies on a lame self-help schtick that he feeds to all his problem students. Director Azarel Jacobs finds just the right balance of drama and comedy for his coming of age tale. For the most part he keeps it real, avoiding a bouncy pop soundtrack and smartalecky Hollywood teens. The mood is low key and quietly compassionate. The film draws much of its tone from the sympathetic but never sentimental performance of Jacob Wysocki as Terri.
Terri: I'm treated like a monster because that's what I am to them. This morning they asked if I suck on my own breasts.
He captures the pain of being a teen, and of trying to fit in without losing one's own identity. But it's the pain of being a misfit and outsider that inspires him to help a popular girl whose reputation has been tarnished.
Heather: I guess I just wanted to say thank you. Can I ask you something though? I mean why did you help me?
Terri: I don't know, why not?
Wysocki plays that line with complete credibility, conveying a teenage boy's sometimes unclear motivation. He also plays well off of John C. Reilly's Mr. Fitzgerald. Reilly, who tends to be better in supporting roles where he doesn't wear out his welcome, makes Fitzgerald a man of somewhat ambiguous but seemingly well intentioned motives.
Mr. Fitzgerald: Life's a mess but we're all doing the best we can.
Writer Patrick DeWitt places what might be the film's message in the mouth of a character known for telling lies. It's a nice irony. But then "Terri" is a refreshing coming of age film. It reveals an underlying and guarded optimism along with enough grit to let us know the filmmakers know the score. Without any flashy style or grossout comic antics, "Terri" conveys what being a teen is often like -- difficult.
The reality for the film, though, is that in a summer of Hollywood blockbusters its modest virtues may simply get lost. So just in case you get shut out of "Harry Potter 7.2" or can't find a superhero in IMAX, consider checking out "Terri." You might enjoy escaping all the escapism for a brief dose of finely nuanced reality.
Companion viewing: "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Momma's Man," "The Chocolate War"
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