Terri: Highlight of Sunadnce 2011

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Sundance Fest 2011 (Dramatic Competition)–Two years after making his Sundance feature debut with “Mama’s Man,” drawing directly on his own art and family, filmmaker Azazel Jacobs shifts gears with the colorful, eccentric and beautifully played “Terri,” a tale about a outcast teenager salvaged by some unorthodox friendships.

The son of the great American experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs (“Star Spangled to Death”), Azazel Jacobs has a style and personality very much his own. He is observant and trenchant, never afraid to take things in uncomfortable and nervy directions, while at the same time he is very much attuned confusion and strangeness of teenagers trapped on the outside of privilege or popularity.

Working on a larger budget and for the first time from a script that he did not originate, Jacobs has fashioned a jewel. It’s the movie the Duplass Brothers have tried but did not succeed to make with “Cyrus.” “Terri” is a work of small, private joys and painful recognition of shared experiences that feels authentically real and lived in.

The terrific young actor Jacob Wysocki plays the eponymous lead. He’s a hulking mass of a young kid, massive chest and thick forearms. He’s sensitive though awkward, smart and inventive though almost paralyzed to show it at a given time. At school, it’s not unusual for a thoughtless classmate to taunt him about his weight or presumed lack of sexual experiences.

Terri’s situation is not very enviable. He lives, in a shambling farmhouse, in an unnamed though dreary California town with his infirmed Uncle James (Creed Bratton). He’s drifting moment to moment, drawn to solitary and beguiling activity, like studying plant and animal behavior on the woods path he passes through every morning on his way to school. He lives inside his own head, a bit of a dreamer who despite his size and bulk apparently designs each day to avoid others. The strangest part about him is his choice of clothes. Most days he just wears some form of his pajamas.

His life is turned, slowly, emphatically, by his developing friendship with the school’s loud and comically abrasive vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly). Fitzgerald looks to intervene in the kid’s life because of his falling grades, the repeated tardiness and the pajamas. (He likes the comfort and the feel on his body, Terri explains.)

Sensing the extra attention Terri requires, the vice principal sets up a series of weekly meetings, a prospect Terri openly resists, thinking it immediately lumps him in with the school’s other social outcasts. The most notorious of the group is Chad (Bridger Zadina), a clever, asocial loner Terri cannot help but befriend.

Patrick de Witt’s screenplay subverts the normal dynamics of the teenager outcast movie. Thankfully, it never weighs down the protagonist with an unnecessarily insistent back-story that clutters the movie’s psychology. “Where’s your mom,” Chad inquires. “I don’t know,” Terri responds. He says the same about his absent father. Terri is loose-limbed and rather self-sufficient, and part of the movie’s beautifully understated tone and sharp edge is however alone and desperate Terri appears, we’re never invited to feel superior to him but acknowledge his pain and loneliness.

That is obvious in the most striking and interesting part of the story, Terri’s obsessive regard for the class beauty, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), that pushes the story into something approaching found art. After Heather is stigmatized for her part in a scandalous sex incident, Terri comes to her defense, first with Fitzgerald in a clever way that avoids her being expelled and the follow up in class that cements a private realization between the two of their shared status.

“Terri” is not borne of large and obvious moments, but tinged with qualities, feelings, actions far harder and more difficult to grasp, like the growing confidence and social ease that enables a young man to find himself and reassert his worth and well-being. The realization comes from a thousand missteps, with anger and mistrust sometimes the logical result, like a life lesson employed by Fitzgerald that does not exactly go off as planned.

In many ways, “Terri” is an essay on loneliness, but Jacobs is possessed with a rigorous humanism that extends to secondary characters, like a spinster secretary or her striving young replacement. Jacobs isolates people and captures them in full view, contradictions and inconsistencies intact.

The situations and the subtle character development build toward an extraordinary climax, a nearly 30-minute scene inside a shed at Terri’s house. He has gathered there rather nervously with Heather and Chad. The three, fueled by gulps of whiskey and nervousness, gradually reveal aspects about acceptance, fear and individuality that is by turns heartbreaking, revealing and absolutely enthralling. Heather’s line, “It’s good to be wanted,” knocks it out of the park.