What enables you to keep going when the world seems to be increasingly against you? Terri is overweight, caring for an ill uncle who needs professional attention. He is not yet ready for the responsibility he has been landed with. Disinterested in school, Terri is played with appropriate preoccupation and vacancy by Jacob Wysocki. Daydreaming, just trying to get through each day, director Azazel Jacobs lets us see the beauty in Terri’s world. The silence and stillness is excellently manipulated by Jacobs early on in the film, simultaneously giving a sense of sadness, and one of hope.
Enter Mr Fitzgerald. A caring teacher at Terri’s school, Fitzgerald is like a cross between Dead Poets Society’s John Keating and one of Jason Bateman’s many performances as a man-child. Played by John C Reilly with just the right amount of vigour, it is the kind of performance that makes you wonder why an actor isn’t cast in such dramatic roles more often. Terri’s world begins to change, as he finds friends and comfort in Fitzgerald’s support.
The heartening, if obvious, message in Patrick DeWitt’s script is that however much you might seem to be an outcast, you are not alone. The youthful supporting cast is strong, but they fall into certain one dimensional high school categories: the loner everyone thinks is crazy, the teenage girl labelled a slut. As these friends come together, their interactions feel natural and entertaining, if a little contrived.
But at this point it becomes clear what the film has wasted. As Terri’s suffering uncle James, Creed Bratton gives the best performance of his career, but is afforded little screen time. Not only is this a shame, but it doesn’t allow the film to build a sense of just how difficult it is for Terri to live with his illness. Wysocki himself is underutilised – there are maybe one or two moments where the script allows his potential to show, when Terri cannot stop his emotions from coming to the surface and breaking out.
What is disappointing about Terri is that all of the meaning and emotion feels too familiar to be affecting. Precious gave us an oversized character struggling with far worse circumstances, we have seen a child forced to grow up too quickly numerous times before. And it’s hardly a challenge to find a film featuring a teen trying to fit in in high school. Terri is perhaps a spiritual descendant of Juno, complete with prematurely mature teens, adults who act like children, and a healthy amount of everyday conflict. But it lacks the charm and humour to pull off such simplicity, when every moment seems like it has been pulled or copied from something we’ve seen before.
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