It is always better to have someone who cares about you than to be alone, and that is what the hero of “Terri”(2001) learns gradually through one of his high school teachers. Because of what I have just said, you will probably think this is another “the teacher of my life” movie, but “Terri” is a different film free of such a convention like that. With the considerable level of intimacy and low-key humor, the movie observes how its characters roll or spin in its seemingly loose plot. Through that process, we get to know more about them than before, and that is why even a small step forward gives us lots of optimistic feeling even though not many things are changed in the end.
When you look at him, you won’t be surprised to know that Terri Thompson(Jacob Wysocki) is one of those lonely teenagers in high schools who are alienated or ridiculed by other students. He is a big, obese kid with disinterested attitude, and he does not particularly care about how others, including his teachers, think about him unless they keep annoying him. For instance, he goes to his school while still wearing a pajama just because he is comfortable in it. At least, he alternatively wears a striped one and a black one.
He has been pretty much content with his solitude. He has no friend, so he spends his free time at his house, where he lives with his uncle (how Terri was left alone with him is not clear; judging from one conversation, his parents were presumably dead). Though his uncle(Creed Bratton – you may recognize him as one of the funny supporting characters in American TV series “The Office”) is ill and senile, Terri’s life with his uncle is not as bad as you think. Their little home is a cozy and comfortable place(I guess his uncle worked as an artist before his illness), and Terri has taken care of his uncle well; though he suffers frequent lapses, his uncle gets a little better than usual from time to time.
But on one day, someone comes into his quiet life. He is the vice principal of his school, Mr. Fitzgerald(John C. Reilly). Mr. Fitzgerald calls Terri to his office, and he tells Terri that he cares about him because he thinks Terri is one of the “good-hearted kids”. Although Terri is reluctant about Mr. Fitzgerald’s approach, they start to have their private meetings.
While there is no big change coming from that, Terri’s life is a little more crowded than before. First, indirectly through his meeting with Mr. Fitzgerald, he comes to get acquainted with Chad Markson(Bridger Zadina), one of the other school kids counseled or disciplined by Mr. Fitzgerald. Though they are a lot different from each other in many aspects including appearance and character(unlike Terri, Chad is a nervous troublemaker desperate for attention), the relationship is somehow formed between them. Soon Chad comes to Terri’s house as his friend, and he is greeted by Terri’s uncle with the toasts with baked bean.
Terri also gets close to one girl named Heather Miles(Olivia Crocicchia) with whom he attends the home economics class. During the class, he happens to witness that she lets one nasty male student touch her private part after being importunately demanded by him. When Heather is called to the Mr. Fitzgerald’s office due to that happening, Terri stands up for her. When she becomes a pariah in the school after the incident, he sits next to her. When she is about to get herself into a trouble, he becomes more active than usual to dissipate the tension. She is grateful for his acts, and the mutual affection grows between them. Their exchange through the notebook is one of the warm, sweet moments in the film; he is nice to her, and so she is.
“Terri” is the first film in Jacob Wysocki’s short career, but this newcomer actor effortlessly gives a nuanced performance as a shy, gentle teenager who slowly gets out of his shell while being connected with the others approaching to him. Terri looks disinterested at his school, but, he is a smart kid, and sometimes there comes the moment when his intellectual curiosity is stimulated, such as when he comes to observe by coincidence how the food chain in the nature works. Right after he throws away the dead mice killed by the mousetraps in the attic, the bird flies in and eats one of them. He is delighted, so he tries to get more dead mice with the mousetraps for getting another chance to observe. As his uncle points out, what he does is a rather cruel act, but at least his motive is not sadistic at all, and he learns a lesson from his wrongdoing.
Wysocki is supported well by John C. Reilly, one of the most reliable supporting actors in Hollywood who can lift his co-performer without drawing any attention to himself. While Mr. Fitzgerald appears to be a funny guy at first, Reilly makes his character a sincere man with good intentions as well as human flaws. Though he is not one of those inspiring teachers we have seen in other movies, Mr. Fitzgerald really wants to help the students he is concerned about because he also went through hard time during his school years. Reilly is especially wonderful when his character honestly admits to Terri that he lied to Terri and he may disappoint Terri again in the future while imparting a simple but truthful life lesson to him(“Life is a mess, dude, but we’re all just doing the best we can.”).
Like Wysocki, Bridger Zadina and Olivia Crocicchia are natural as their respective characters, and they and Wysocki make the crucial scene later in the story precise and believable in its progression. They decide to spend the night together in the shack next to Terri’s house, and, though they just want to have a little fun, the circumstance becomes a lot more awkward and unpredictable with the alcohol and the drug stolen from Terri’s uncle. Regrettable things could happen in such a situation like that, but, fortunately, they manage not to cross the line.
The director Azazel Jacobs, who wrote the story with the screenplay writer Patrick Dewitt, made a warm coming-of-age drama about how not being alone can make some difference in one’s life. The movie made me recall when one of my middle school teachers said I was the loneliest student in that class. I did not take it seriously, and I was not interested in having a friend, and I remained one of the infamous students in the school(every student knew me), but I was helped by my teachers(mainly due to my excellent grade). I have to say that some of them were not model educators, but I am still grateful for them – I visit them whenever I get the chance to drop by the school.
Even when the movie is over, many things remain unresolved for Terri and others. Their life will go on, and there may be other complications in their relationships in the future. But now Terri has someone he can talk with, and he also has friends. Someday, maybe he will find that he can be comfortable in other clothes besides his pajamas.
Sidenote: The movie will be shown at 2012 Ebertfest on April 26th – and it will be also shown on April 27th and May 2nd during 2012 Jeonju International Film Festival held in my hometown. I can’t go, but you can go, perhaps.