Credit: Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY - You know what the world needs? Another quirky coming-of-age Sundance flick about a lovable outcast who comes to appreciate his own individuality with the help of an oddball authority figure.
That sounds sarcastic, doesn't it? Of all the things the world probably doesn't inherently need, another quirky coming-of-age Sundance flick about a lovable outcast who comes to appreciate his own individuality with the help of an oddball authority figure is probably fairly high on that list.
But even a genre that you think can't possibly benefit from another iteration seems more worthwhile when executed properly and Azazel Jacobs' "Terri
" takes a Sundance staple and does it right.
"Terri" is an odd movie and I think it could evoke wildly different responses based on your particular sense of humor, but it made me laugh frequently and amidst the chuckles, it delivered a fair amount of sincere, sometimes painful insight into the difficulties of growing up different.
[Note: I've seen some folks call "Terri" a drama and the Sundance program lists "heart" ahead of "humor" when describing its attributes. Subjectivity is a crazy thing, I suppose...]
Full review after the break...
The lovable outcast in question is Terri (Jacob Wysocki), who lives with his ailing uncle (Creed Bratton), suffers from a not-insignicant weight problem and shows up to school in his pajamas. The kids either tease Terri or ignore him entirely and so his interest in showing up to class is secondary to important pursuits like disposing of the mice that roam in the attic above his bed.
Terri's truancy draws the attention of vice principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who has taken a person interest in helping the "different" kids at the school. Mr. Fitzgerald's methods aren't conventional, but he helps Terri come to realize either that being with other outcasts is better than being alone, or that when you're in growing up, everybody feels different, whether they're the seemingly hostile misfit (Bridger Zadina) or the pretty girl with the bad reputation (Olivia Crocicchia).
Scripted by Patrick de Witt, "Terri" isn't concerned with whether critics describe it as a "comedy" or a "drama." Depending on your generosity, it either plays by its own tonal rules, or it can't choose a tone. I'm inclined to go with the former, since Jacob isn't disturbed by the movie's swings, committing equally whether "Terri" is going for low-key dialogue-driven humor, brought physical or character comedy, cringe-worthy moments of adolescent embarrassment or sad and touching moments that play out without even a hint of manipulation. If "Terri" is a movie about how no matter how we seem on the surface, most of us can't be easily categorized as "normal" or "strange,' it's equally about how even if our lives seem best suited for just a single genre, most of our lives could be many different kinds of movie depending on the day.
Structurally, the movie also proves different to compartmentalize. Early scenes play out almost as unconnected vignettes, introducing Terri's world and the outside characters, but hardly feeling cumulative. It's a few embarrassing incidents and a few encouraging incidents. Exactly enough to set up the pieces on the chess board. Then, in its second half, the scenes grow markedly longer, simultaneously getting darker, but also funnier. The movie's key sequence is an amazingly long scene driven by the three young characters, an interaction that will shock and alienate some viewers, but which feels satisfying and organic based on what came before. It's that scene where the movie stops saying, "This is what this is about" and actually becomes about something. I'm hesitant to spoil anything at all, but it's the best single scene I've seen in a movie at Sundance thus far, producing laughter, discomfort and concern in short order.
No matter how well de Witt and Jacob balance the tone and the subject matter, there's absolutely no way that "Terri" could work if any of the parts were miscast in the slightest. If you feel too sorry for any character, if you laugh too hard at any character, if you think that any character doesn't look believably like a high school student, the whole movie would cave in on its own naval gazing.
I'm not sure if I remember Wysocki from the couple episodes of "Huge" that I watched, but he's remarkable. He has a background in comedy, but he picks and chooses when he wants Terri to be the butt of jokes. His run, for example, is a priceless piece of business. But mostly, he maintains a quiet dignity for a character who desperately needs dignity. He also keeps the character's anti-social tendencies sufficiently under check that you never feel anxious watching him. He's in every scene of the movie and if you think "Terri" works, he deserves a preponderance of the credit. In the aforementioned extended crucial scene, Wysocki is equalled by Zadina and Crocicchia, who both hit their human and comic marks, but never feel like CW-style teen actors.
Whatever release "Terri" gets will be hung on Reilly, who has the broadest of the movie's comedic scenes, but has the generosity to let himself be upstaged by his co-stars. That he doesn't create a tonal inbalace speaks well of his performance.
There are several other supporting actors I could note, but I want to make sure I don't forget Creed Bratton. The "Office" scene-stealer has one of the most interesting backgrounds of any actor on TV, but I'd never have even considered that he was capable of this kind of quiet, smirk-free excellence, never overplaying the "senile old relative" card.
As I've tried to observe, "Terri" is going to be a polarizing movie and it's going to be an even harder sell for whoever acquires it. The easiest ways to market "Terri" would invariably feel like a bait-and-switch, the same sort of thing Fox Searchlight had to do with last year's Sundance favorite "Cyrus," which underperformed theatrically. I hope it gets a chance, because after mulling over "Terri" for the better part of a day trying to write my review, I've actually come to reflect even more positively on it.