[Terri screened as the opening night film of this year's Atlanta Film Festival. It will be released in theaters on July 1st]
The coming-of-age genre has become so tired and packed with quirk that the majority of recent indie films in the genre are a chore. Azazel Jacobs’ Terri dodges the cliches and the quirks that have made the genre intolerable, but the film never replaces them with anything coherent or thoughtful. In its desire to keep its characters from being caricatures, the story pulls too far back and almost seems afraid to provide anything distinctive.
Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is an obese teenager who lives with his increasingly senile uncle (Creed Bratton). Terri has pretty much given up on self-improvement, trying to be cool, or any of the other standard tropes of the genre. Instead, he wears pajamas (“They’re comfortable”, he explains) and just stays silent. Because of his constant tardiness, he comes to the attention of the school’s assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly). Fitzgerald calls Terri one of the “good kids” and schedules weekly meetings with the teenager. But Terri soon discovers that “good kids” to Fitzgerald is code for “weird kids” and the film engages in a back-in-forth struggle of having Terri trust Fitzgerald and realizing that Fitzgerald is giving him a standard song-and-dance.
Taken individually, every scene in Terri is fairly strong. The scenes between Terri and his uncle are touching and I applaud the film for honestly portraying the uncle’s growing dementia as something sad rather than a fountain of kooky wisdom. The scenes between Terri and Fitzgerald provide the film’s funniest moments as John C. Reilly’s high-energy performance plays well off Wysocki’s deadpan tone. I also really enjoyed the scenes with Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), the film’s “love-interest” although the movie takes an interesting turn and doesn’t play out the relationship as you’d expect it.
But the pacing and overall narrative keeps Terri as less than the sum of its parts. The emotions and subtext rarely build from scene to scene. When we see Terri laying traps in the forest to kill mice in order to feed a hawk, it’s gross, offbeat, slightly funny, and a little bit sad. But it doesn’t build to anything in the development of the story or emotional development of the character. Nothing Terri does later in the movie recalls his earlier behavior. The story confuses its ability to describe Terri as the same thing as helping the audience to understand Terri. I’m glad that the film doesn’t hold the audience’s hand or overload the character on quirks (the pajamas are more than enough, and you have to be willing to believe that a public school would let Terri wear them). But Jacobs and Wysocki don’t give us anything to latch onto.
Terri deserves some credit for almost being an anti-coming-of-age film where the protagonist isn’t picking up wisdom from sage adults or learning to build confidence as much as he’s simply keeping his head down and trying to stay “comfortable”. But in its quest to eschew genre tropes and forge its own path, Terri never manages to really go anywhere.