Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 01, 2011 10:34 am 
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Terri is a little film from Sundance about an outsize high school student. The eponymous protagonist (Jacob Wysocki), who is very large and overweight, lives with his semi-demented uncle James (Creed Bratton), wears pajamas to school because they're comfortable, and is habitually tardy. Terri is teased by the other kids for his big breasts. School isn't exactly easy for him and life probably won't be either. But the filmmakers are not about constructing a lurid drama of dysfunction and triumph like Sapphire. The mood is quiet. Terri is calm and self-possessed, except for brief moments of acting out. The film sometimes drifts into moments of sit-com humor, while touching on stuff that a sit-com couldn't handle, like a boy masturbating his girlfriend in home economics class, a foul-mouthed little smart-ass who pulls his hair out, and Terri's killing rats for fun. He shows Uncle James what he's done and then repents. Killing the rats in the attic was one thing; killing them out of doors was another. "I made a mistake. That's what people do. They make mistakes all the time," says the vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly). Mr. Fitzgerald has various misfits or challenged kids come to his office once a week for one-on-one meetings.

These include Chad (Bridger Zadina), the smart, rude little boy who pulls out his own hair, also a boy in a wheelchair, and a retarded girl. When Terri sees that he's being scheduled along with these students he feels he's been classified as a "monster" but Mr. Fitzgerald plays at being his buddy, calling him "dude" and exchanging high-fives. Mr. Fitzgerald claims he was once a "monster" himself but now is okay, is happy with who he is and with his life, enjoys coming in to work. The way he yells at the kids in his office says otherwise, but according to Mr. Fitzgerald, that's just a bit of theater to keep alive his secretary, who he says is dying -- "of smoking," he says. And she does die soon thereafter. Mr. Fitzgerald takes Chad and Terri to the burial -- one of the moments when the movie drifts right into comedy, not altogether successfully.

Terri is so poised and relaxed (like its large protagonist) it sometimes seems to have come to a complete standstill. In avoiding pathos or melodrama Jacobs also somewhat avoids momentum. But, like the protagonist, the film moves at its own easy pace. Terri intercedes to save the masturbated girl, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) from expulsion, saying that the boy, Dirty Jack (Justin Prentice) forced the act upon her. Heather bonds with Terri out of gratitude, not only becoming his classroom pal, but visiting him at home -- an event Chad sabotages. On other other hand, though it's a little too self-consciously clever and tongue-in-cheek at times (maybe it laughs to keep from crying), Terri is successful in keeping you guessing about what's going to happen next. That evening at Terri's with Chad and Heather and Terri getting drunk is a metaphor for this unpredictable quality in the whole movie. It's unexpected, and the worst that can happen turns out to be not bad at all. The three young actors distinguish themselves in this climactic sequence.

Sometimes the best that you can say about something is that it's unclassifiable. Jacobs, his co-writer Patrick Dewitt, his suave cinematographer Tobias Datum, and his talented cast follow indie, Sundance conventions, but with them they achieve fresh outcomes.

Azrael's previous film was the 2008 Momma's Man, which also debuted at Sundance. Terri debuted at Sundance in January 2011 and was also included in the Florida, Boston, and Seattle festivals and was the centerpiece film of the San Francisco International Film Festival. It opens in US theaters (NYC and LA) July 1.

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