Friday, October 14, 2011

Terri (Azazel Jacobs, 2011)

Terri feels like the film the Duplass brothers' intended crossover Cyrus wanted to be, even if its subject matter is different and the overall quality of the two movies is not radically different. Azazel Jacobs' smooth, crisp, measured direction lingers on the odd but believable high-school world crafted by screenwriter Patrick DeWitt, drawing out its beats until "comedy" and "drama" become meaningless distinctions. This is not discomfort humor, or at least not in the sense of squirm comedy. Rather, Terri ekes comedy out of the discomfort of life itself, not the embarrassing shenanigans of warped loonies who may well exist but are not as common as the quiet embarrassments and indignities on display here.

The titular protagonist (Jacob Wysocki) is an overweight 15-year-old  who lives with his uncle, James (The Office's Creed Bratton), a loving but often removed man in the early stages of dementia. Picked on at school and made increasingly lonely by the mental slippage of the only person who speaks to him, Terri starts showing up late for class and constantly wears pajamas, only further distancing himself from the other kids. Taller and wider than everyone else, mocked for his poverty and weight, and decked out in clothes that isolate him in the frame, Terri looks absurd, but the look of muted loneliness on his face evokes a great deal of pain.

Orbiting around Terri is a cast of skittish but lethargic oddballs who behave like your average zany high-school-movie kids after passing around bottles of Adderall. Terri worries about fitting in among the slimmer boys who boast of sexual conquests, but their cagey, pubescent jitters make them no more normal or centered than Terri. One boy even coaxes a girl (whom Terri likes) to let him grope her during a class But the isolation is taking its toll: forced into setting traps for mice by his uncle, Terri's initial reluctance turns to a brief fascination with death that signals how slowly but surely he is headed for the edge.

Noticing this is the school's assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who decides to take Terri under his wing in a seeming act of kindness. Reilly plays Fitzgerald as the picked-on kid who overcame his shyness and sense of hurt only through completely internalizing child therapist exercises. He talks like a motivational speaker in search of a gymnasium, trying to pep up Terri with personal experience he's honed into slogans so pat he could deliver them in call-and-response cheers.

Fitzgerald makes plain a truth that links the characters of Terri: everyone wants something from the others. Heather's (Olivia Crocicchia) boyfriend wants sex from her, and Terri at least wants some kind of recognition from her. Uncle James wants Terri around to do all the chores he cannot. A spiky basket of pent-up sexual aggression named Chad hangs out with Terri for a time, but he really gravitates toward the protagonist when his kindness wins Heather over and presents an opportunity for the gangly kid to swoop in and steal her from the fat guy. The nicest of these characters—Terri, Fitzgerald, and Heather—all carry such baggage that even their niceness seems suspect at times, or at least driven by their own desire to be validated by someone else. As Heather quietly, morosely yet defiantly explains her willingness to let her ex- touch her in class, sometimes it's just nice to be wanted.

The understanding that wanting something from others is not only not inherently evil but natural softens what might have been a cynical look at the nastiness and exploitative relations of children and adults. Jacobs wrings comedy out of downbeat moments, such as a funeral for Fitzgerald's old secretary that makes Eleanor Rigby's seem a New Orleans jazz wake in comparison, but he does not sacrifice the chill of such scenes. The film climaxes with a date of sorts between Terri and Heather back at Uncle James' place, a date into which Chad wedges himself, and the bored, awkward chatter leads to booze and pills that tilt the sequence slowly off its axis. Chad's drunken, predatory lures are as creepy as they are hilarious, while Terri wrestles with his temptation in heartbreaking bewilderment in a moment that shows considerable maturity in displaying the moral weight of potentially acting on urges with someone too drunk to give proper consent. We've certainly come a long way from Animal House downright mocking a character's masculinity for not date-raping an underage girl.

Terri's minute observations of real human emotions elevate some of the shakier elements of inconsistency and insecurity, issues easily dismissed as minor. In one brief but memorable exchange, a deluded Uncle James grabs Heather and sweetly but pointedly speaks beyond her, "There's no use in pretending you're thinking of anybody but yourself." That idea of self-serving consideration runs through the film, but as we see when Terri faces his hardest challenge of moral fiber, genuine decency does exist here. For a film so stark that its laughs often die before they even reach the throat, Terri also proved unexpectedly moving, its understated conclusion one of the more hopeful of the year. Slight quibbles with some repetition aside, this is a fine work of deadpan comedy and revealing insight.

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