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Terri

August 7, 2011
Terri

High school pretty much sucks all around. But despite everyone wanting to grab their own retroactive piece of adolescent rejection now that a certain cultural quotation of geekdom has become ironically hip, it’s not evenly distributed. Most people have a few embarrassing incidents amid a generally supportive social network, but then there are the ones who get kicked in the face — usually metaphorically — on a daily basis. Terri is for those kids.

Terri himself (Jacob Wysocki) is one of those kids. At 15 he’s morbidly obese, living with his uncle (Creed Bratton) whose mind is starting to go. As it gets harder to be the caregiver in the house, he starts showing up late for school, usually wearing a set of pajamas. And he’s a pretty easy target, so his treatment ranges from harassment to abuse at the hands of anyone who even notices him. His teachers certainly don’t seem to.

And so Terri comes into the orbit of the assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who tries to take the kid under his wing. But Terri’s hardly the only pariah in the school; there’s a rogue’s gallery ranging from the smart, angry Chad (Bridger Zadina) who yanks out tufts of his own hair to the once-popular Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) whose own self-image lands her in the social scrapheap.

Mr. Fitzgerald copes by deploying some armchair psychology and a few hoary clichés, hoping each kid doesn’t realize he’s not really the first to see the old scrapbook that “proves” Mr. Fitzgerald knows what they’re going through. He assures them that he understands, while never really trying to find out what’s going on in their lives.

It’s hard to really blame him; he’s doing the best he can, just like everyone else. As little as even the best-intentioned teachers know about what’s going on right under their noses, it’s simply impossible not to just keep their heads down and find ways to simplify the unending stream of misery that is adolescence.

But sometimes the problems aren’t amenable to simple answers, and the kids are left to fend more or less for themselves. There’s an air of impending disaster hanging over everything, leading up to a long, difficult, but powerful sequence that forms the emotional heart of the movie.

Under Azazel Jacobs’ direction, Wysocki, Zadina, and Crocicchia all do a great job, especially for actors so young dealing with sometimes veery intense material. Bratton and Reilly are good — Reilly in particular is incredibly understated compared to his usual style — but despite being more experienced they both mostly support the three kids, who are the center of the story.

And what a story Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick Dewitt have given us. For as banal as these troubles are, they are treated with tender, melancholy care. At the end of the day, nothing is really solved, just like in real life. The best we can do is learn to survive, and to do the best we can, the same as everybody else.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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