Movie review: 'Terri'

"Terri," starring newcomer Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly, is a lovely lyrical ode to high school misfits and the adults they grow into.

Director Azazel Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick deWitt, who shaped the script from a series of deWitt's short stories, have captured that quintessential outsider essence that infects the usual teenage suspects, but catches one of the cool kids in its net as well. That "Terri's" humor, poignancy and intimate storytelling captivated audiences at Sundance is not surprising, though nearly everything else about this very fine indie film is.

Wysocki is Terri, a lumbering pudge of a guy who despite his towering size is a favorite target of those high school boys who run in packs and are both bullies and jerks. By the time we meet Terri and his tormenters, he's taken to wearing pajamas to school simply because, as he tells Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), the vice principal in charge of the troubled and tortured, they're more comfortable.

Even beyond the weight, Terri's is not an easy lot. He's parentless, though we're not sure why, and living with an uncle (Creed Bratton), who is losing a battle with disease and dementia. At school, when he's not being bullied, Terri is isolated in his insecurity. A mess of contradictions, he is sometimes childlike and sometimes mature. That you're never sure which way Terri will handle a given situation is a tribute to the strength of the storytelling here.

As a filmmaker, Jacobs is something of a miniaturist, specializing in slivers of life and then building a whole host of complications inside them, which suits "Terri's" small-world big-picture well.

On the surface, the semi-rural area and the high school setting where the film unfolds might seem night-and-day different from the urban world of Jacobs' last film, the critically acclaimed 2008 "Momma's Man." But at their core, both movies are about navigating the treacherous emotional shoals of adulthood, which increasingly defines the filmmaker's work. Instead of a thirtysomething father and husband who has run home to mom and dad because real life is too much for him, this time Jacobs is concerned with an obese teen forced to grow up too fast.

Jacobs and deWitt use Terri's circumstances to circle a series of serious, and seriously uncomfortable, issues. DeWitt captures the way people talk about a problem without talking about a problem as he works his way through obesity, kids as caretakers, the emotional price of neglect, peer pressure, sex and drugs with an unvarnished honesty that is bracing.

It's potent stuff, laced with smart, sensitive humor, and extremely well handled by Wysocki and the excellent ensemble of young actors that become Terri's intimates, especially Bridger Zadina as Chad, a hair-pulling live wire always on the verge of a meltdown, and Olivia Crocicchia as Heather, the pretty girl with problems. Jacobs and cinematographer Tobias Datum add another layer, giving a naturalist beauty to this broken world.

Reilly's vice principal is the adult hub in this teen wheel, as one by one all the conflicted kids end up in his office.

The actor is exactly the right guy to play a grown-up who's a little off-center himself, unconventional in his approach but so genuinely decent that you understand why students gravitate to him. In a sense, his vice principal stands as the archetype of that teacher whose power rests in the mere fact that they're emotionally there. Reilly brings such nuance to the undercurrent of the slightly outrageous that he keeps Mr. Fitzgerald crackling fresh and constantly surprising.

But Wysocki carries the film. He's the embodiment of teenage strength and weakness. By turns tough and soft, serious and silly, needy and self-sufficient. "Terri" is not always easy to like, but impossible not to love.

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