Saturday, April 30, 2011

Atlanta Film Festival review: "Terri"

Think - when's the last time you saw a new movie that is truly unique? For me it had been quite a while, but I managed to catch one with Azazel Jacobs' "Terri," the opening night movie for this year's Atlanta Film Festival 365.

And what makes that all the more amazing is that it comes with such a familiar structure - the lovable authority figure who reaches out to the high school misfit and teaches him or her how to live life (another of one those? Sheesh.) But both the greatest strength and simultaneously a weakness is that "Terri" doesn't initiate a grand, transformative experience for the titular hero here, just gives a bit of dignity to a kid who sorely needs some.

When you first meet Terri, you'll see, however, just how much of an accomplishment even that will be. Jacob Wysocki, who I had never seen in anything before, plays the rather rotund kid who wears pajamas to school because, well when you see him, I think you'll understand. It's just one of the many uncomfortable situations that Jacobs plays for a mix of humor and drama that, while it never really picks a side, doesn't have to. And Wysocki, from the way he runs as Terri to the contempt for the world around him he expresses in his face, is a natural comedian and someone you'll fall in love with from the start.

Not surprisingly, Terri has few friends at the high school he only bothers to turn up to sporadically at best. Who has time for that when he has to concern himself with catching the mice who roam the attic in the shack he shares with his senile uncle, Creed Bratton of "The Office" fame in a restrained performance that will catch you by surprise.

The job of drawing Terri out of this rut falls to school principal Mr. Fitzgerald, played by John C. Reilly in another fairly great performance in his second career act as a comedian. This isn't, however, the broad kind of role he delivered in taking over "Cedar Rapids," though he does do some yelling in an attempt to convey at least a smidgen of authority. He just plays a guy who's clearly in over his head, but still tries to reach out to the misfits (or, as Terri calls them, "monsters") who cross his path each day. The best scenes in "Terri" involve Reilly and Wysocki squaring off and looking for some common ground, which they eventually find they have more of than either expected.

Jacobs' movie, based on a screenplay he wrote with novelist Patrick Dewitt, is more than a bit too episodic in its first half, but it gets better as the scenes grow longer, culminating in one completely uncomfortable take on the "Breakfast Club" scenario of the outcast summit. I don't want to spoil any of what happens when Terri eventually finds two friends in Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), the pretty girl with a bad reputation, and Chad (Bringer Zadina), a kid so angry he can't find much else to do than constantly pull his own hair out. These kids definitely aren't all right, and what happens when they come together with a bottle of whiskey and some of Terri's uncle's pills will be the most polarizing aspect of this movie, assuming anyone gets too see it when it gets at least some kind of theatrical release in July.

In the end, though it could certainly use some more narrative drive, what Jacobs' movie has is plenty of humanity, and in that it reminded me of the movies of Thomas McCarthy, one of my very favorite directors (probably also admittedly because I saw "Win Win" yesterday, and that was sensational.) If you get the chance to see it, I think you'll enjoy this tale of a genuine misfit searching for a little bit of dignity. I know I did.

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