Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What's Eating Terri

Yes, those are pajamas, but the high school kid wearing them to class is no Hefner. He is a rather sad and lonely young person, whose closest friend might actually be the school’s vice-principal in Azazel Jacobs’ Terri, which opens this Friday in New York.

Beyond his odd wardrobe and unmistakable “huskiness,” Terri Thompson just does not fit in with his peers, but he does not seem to want to. His parents are gone, for reasons implied perhaps, but never overtly stated. He lives with his late middle-aged Uncle James, whose faculties are slowly ebbing away, largely inverting their caretaker-ward relationship. However, Mr. Fitzgerald, vice-principal for discipline, is on a mission to reach out to misfit students like Thompson. One could almost say he collects them, yet his heart is still mostly in the right place.

Terri the film is far more interesting when watching Terri the character interact with adults than navigating the standard issue peer pressure and raging hormones of high school. Frankly, we have seen all that angst before. However, Mr. Fitzgerald is worth keeping an eye on. Neither a heroic Joe Clark nor an odious “Dick” Vernon from The Breakfast Club, Fitzgerald really wants to make a connection with kids like Thompson, but he is not above cutting corners and recycling lines in the process. Yet, he displays a genuinely deep and forgiving understanding of human nature.

In the lead, Jacob Wysocki is completely convincing, conveying a lot of pain and confusion with unexpectedly assured understatement. While on comfortable ground as Fitzgerald, the flawed everyman, John C. Reilly makes every scene and each line count. His sharply written near-monologue addressing the necessary hypocrisy to be expressed by his temp secretary about to go fulltime following her predecessor’s death is well worth showing the Academy during awards season.

Perhaps the greatest surprise though is former Grassroots guitarist and eponymous American Office cast-member Creed Bratton as Uncle James, who rings quiet dignity from what could have been a largely throwaway role. Thanks to Bratton’s work, when old James has his moments, they are heavy indeed. Also making the leap from small to large screen, Rescue Me’s Olivia Crocicchia shows real screen presence, even if her character, Heather Miles, the school’s reluctant sexpot, is a rather familiar stock figure.

Oddly enough, Terri is the second film released this year featuring a sensitive PJ-clad protagonist. Fortunately, Jacobs’ take is exponentially superior to the embarrassing dreck of Waiting for Forever, because he and writer Patrick Dewitt understand on some level Thompson is a troubled kid with difficulty expressing his feelings. This is not cutely eccentric, but acutely human. Though there are no real surprises, Terri boasts a host of finely drawn performances. An often uncomfortable but well executed return to high school (from the son of experimental auteur Ken Jacobs), Terri opens this Friday (7/1) at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema.