NZIFF ’11: Terri

nziff ’11: Terri
dir. Azazel Jacobs | USA | 2011 | 105 mins.

Azazel Jacobs’ new film might star John C. Reilly and be named after its fat-kid lead character, and that character might be portrayed by a young actor in a stunning first-feature performance—but this is no Cyrus or Precious. The tone of the comedy in this coming-of-age tale is much more subdued than that in which the Duplass brothers have come to trade, and the almost total lack of sentimentality (not feeling, but overbearing mawkishness) means that there’s none of the forced melodrama of that horrid Gabourey Sidibe vehicle from a couple of years ago.

Jacob Wysocki is quietly revelatory as the teenaged title character, an overweight miscreant who wears pyjamas to school, gets picked on just about daily, and has the hots for the cutest girl in class—but those aren’t his only problems: at home, Terri cares for his uncle (Creed Bratton, the US version of The Office) who’s showing the first signs of dementia. In one of director Jacobs’ favourite scenes, our protagonist gets called in to the principal’s office early on in the film for being late. That principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), yells at him but then lets on that he’s only pretending—he actually wants to be Terri’s buddy, and calls him one of the ‘good-hearted’ kids who needs to be looked out for.

It’s in the waiting room outside the principal’s office that we first meet Chad (Bridger Zadina)—a fellow social misfit who pulls out tufts of his hair in nonconformist protest—and Mr. Fitzgerald’s secretary, both of whom become increasingly important to Terri’s story as the film progresses. Having said that, there’s really not too much of a story per se in this character study; other people seem to just revolve around Terri and sometimes get caught up in his orbit—like his pretty blond classmate Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), whom he narrowly saves from being kicked out of school following an embarrassing public incident.

The supreme awkwardness that pervades much of the film and comes to a head with a beautifully honest scene in the third act is conveyed with amazing tenderness by Wysocki; Jacobs makes his performance an utter joy to watch. Written by Patrick deWitt from a story by deWitt and Jacobs, the film moves at a leisurely pace informed more by real life than by any ‘ordinary’ rules of movie-storytelling. In this respect, and in its respectful observance—sometimes at a distance—of its protagonist, it is of a piece with Jacobs’ previous films TheGoodTimesKid and Momma’s Man. Jacobs has more money to play with this time round, though, which means a step up in cinematography quality and skill, away from the sometimes necessarily harsh look of cheaper digital photography. The film’s cinematography, by Tobias Datum (Amreeka; additional photography on Miranda July’s The Future, also in this year’s nziff), has a lovely honeycomb/pastel aesthetic that nicely complements its overall muted feeling.

One nitpick is that the score is so generic as to be redundant—it would’ve been nicer to just have a few songs here and there (Daniel Johnston, perhaps?) rather than the light-piano motifs/folk combo that has become ubiquitous in the years since Little Miss Sunshine. This misstep aside, Terri announces a talent-to-watch in Wysocki, and shows Jacobs’ growing ability to maintain a strong personal touch while edging ever closer to the mainstream.

p.s. Watch out for a brief, funny cameo by Tim Heidecker of Tim & Eric fame.

The New Zealand International Film Festivals began on July 14 in Auckland; they start in Wellington on July 29, then travel to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout August, and Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, Kerikeri in November.

Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.

For more reviews, browse the “New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011
tag on this site, and check the Twitter hashtag #nzff.