Terri Dir. Azazel Jacobs

[ATO Pictures; 2011]

Styles: indie dramedy
Others: The GoodTimesKid, Momma’s Man, Dear Mexico

While Terri is firmly focused on the titular teen, there’s no sense that anyone else on screen realizes he’s the star. This is partly because he’s a disaffected, portly outcast with no interest in engaging the outside world. But it’s also a credit to director Azazel Jacobs and writer Patrick DeWitt, who populate that world with an eccentric mix of characters who clearly have their own lives and problems. The beauty of Terri is seeing how these dramas coincide.

Our sympathy is drawn to Terri from the opening scene, with the forlorn, almost haunted cherub tending to his clearly addled uncle before trudging off to school in his suit pajamas — boxers visible beneath the faded fabric. Although Terri’s obviously ostracized from his peers, fears of trite Napoleon Dynamite grotesquerie or Juno hip are quickly put to rest when he’s called to the office of his assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald, played by John C. Reilly. Genuinely concerned beneath the corny armor his job requires, Fitzgerald’s meetings with Terri solidify the sense that the movie isn’t looking for easy laughs or alienation. It’s a perfect role for Reilly, exploiting his Hackman-esque warmth and intelligence. Even as his character makes mistakes, we know he won’t let us down.

Terri’s awkward and isolated, but not without his pride: when a secretary reveals who else has special meetings with Fitzgerald, he’s revolted and embarrassed. Although the movie hits familiar notes of self-discovery when Terri starts to make friends, and even charms an attractive girl, it’s never steady going, and the threat of humiliation (or worse) is always present. When his troubled posse chugs alcohol late at night, you may be both warmed by what the acceptance means to him and uncomfortably nervous for how badly the scenario could turn. It may Get Better when an outcast learns to love himself, but that doesn’t mean he won’t experience hurt.

We never learn how Terri got to where he is (did he ever have friends before high school?), and considering the kid is stuck in a dilapidated home in the woods with a mentally incapable senior citizen, one might wonder whether Fitzgerald should be calling child services rather than giving Terri pep talks and taking him out for the occasional meal. But if you’re not above a feel-good movie on principle, it’s easy to appreciate the film’s smart but sympathetic tone. Terri may not have Tree Of Life’s CGI dinosaurs and A-list pedigree, but filmgoers hungry for another picturesque film that taps into a sense of youth and empathy may find this one more than worth their time, especially if you prefer your comedy to be intentional.

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