Lessons in the back of the class
Can you stand one more quirky, low-budget independent movie about a high school castaway? If it’s from Azazel Jacobs, maybe you should. Jacobs, the son of experimental-film legend Ken Jacobs, is a gentle, frizzy-haired free spirit whose movies tend to breathe with a rhythm of their own. “The GoodTimesKid’’ (2005) was a fluky fable - Chaplin unmoored in LA - and 2008’s “Momma’s Man,’’ about a grown man who can’t leave his parents’ apartment, was eerie and funny in the richest possible ways.
“Terri,’’ his latest, is Jacobs’s most conventional movie yet, which is to say it still mostly bops along to a tune many people won’t hear. But it played Sundance this year, and it has a character-star in a supporting role - John C. Reilly as the most hapless vice principal ever - and it appears to fit into that well-worn genre in which teen losers learn how to win on their own off-kilter terms. Like “Napoleon Dynamite’’ or “Rushmore,’’ in other words, except with actual people instead of cartoons.
The title character, played with shy certainty by Jacob Wysocki, is one of those hulking adolescent man-mountains who sit in the back of the class and who no one ever sees. Parentless and living with a kind but ailing uncle (Creed Bratton), Terri starts wearing pajamas to school one day in a quietly insistent bid for rebellion. Nothing for concern in the Boston suburbs, perhaps, but in rural California it’s enough to get him sent to the office of Mr. Fitzgerald, who has his 12-step pep talks all ready. If Reilly didn’t exist, this role would make it necessary to invent him.
There’s not a lot to “Terri’’ in the way of plot. The hero learns to trust, then mistrust, then trust Mr. Fitzgerald. He reluctantly befriends the vice principal’s other prize misfit, a perpetually horny runt (Bridger Zadina) who picks at his scalp like he’s trying to climb out of his own skin. Terri also comes to the defense of the school golden girl (Olivia Crocicchia) after she’s branded a slut.
A touching but unequal friendship results, and in its passive-aggressive way, “Terri’’ is sharply attuned to the way teenage social levels intermingle and separate - who uses who, and what refusing to be used entails. It all leads to a long drunken night of uptight teenage abandon, a funny/awkward scene of game-playing and revelation, with Terri stoically trying to hold on to the naivete that he senses is his greatest strength.
People in Jacobs’s movies are usually freaked out by adulthood: the roly-poly hero of “Momma’s Man,’’ Reilly’s adorably useless vice principal, the high school kids who haven’t figured out which social niche they want to hide in. That makes Terri something of a hero, because he knows who he is, even if he doesn’t know what to call it yet. Wysocki gives a watchful, real-time performance, and he has genuine presence - we’re all better for hanging out with this kid.
That said, the movie struggles to find its shape throughout. Jacobs favors observational moments rather than linear narrative, and that’s fine, but you still sense he’s drifting toward a point that never quite coheres. Maybe that is the point. “Terri’’ lacks the thematic forward drive of “Momma’s Man,’’ but it’s nice to see that Jacobs’s faith in people - their oddness and cruelty and beauty - is undimmed. He’s a filmmaker who’s advancing in a novel direction: sideways.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.