Monday, October 10, 2011

Outsiders: TERRI

You’d think a small independent comedy about a quirky outcast high school boy would have nothing new to say and would, at best, be a reasonably watchable riff on the expected character arcs that have been with us since at least the height of Sundance’s popularity. But then along comes Azazel Jacobs’s Terri, which confounds and amuses precisely because it squirms around every trap its concept would seem to have set.

Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is a sullen heavyset teenager who lives in a small house in the middle of the woods with his uncle (Creed Bratton). You can tell from the home’s eccentric décor that his uncle was once a man with a rich and diverse intellectual life filled with many worthwhile hobbies and pursuits. Now, though, he’s sinking into dementia, alternating good days and bad days. Terri has his bad days too. He feels ignored at school, a small presence in a large frame.

Suddenly Terri makes a change, deciding to wear pajamas when he goes to school, on the days he decides to go to school, that is. This concerns the principal (John C. Reilly) who calls him into his office to inquire about Terri’s mental state. The two of them strike up an uneasy relationship – friendship isn’t quite the right word – as the principal decides that they should meet at least once a week. This development doesn’t turn into an awkward buddy comedy. Instead Jacobs and co-writer Patrick Dewitt allow these characters to remain resolutely separate, fumbling in their own ways towards a connection with a kindred spirit. There’s no chance for easy, cheap sentimentality or standard high-school-mentor uplift. Someone in a position of authority is not automatically imbued with the keys to emotional success. Reilly plays a man completely uncomfortable with himself, but all-too comfortable with yelling at a problem student to “Sit down! In a chair!”

During his time waiting outside the office, Terri meets other students, outcasts of one sort of another. One kid (Bridger Zadina), a small, skinny late-bloomer sits perpetually hunched, the better to pull out strands of his own hair. Later, he’ll show up unannounced at Terri’s house, so eager to grasp on to tenuous potential for friendship. Another, a pretty blonde (Olivia Crocicchia), was caught with her lab partner (Justin Prentice) in a vaguely consensual, wholly inappropriate for school, anatomy experiment in the middle of home ec. Terri defends her to the principal, trying to save her from suspension. There’s the underlying feeling of an unrequited crush to Terri’s actions, but at first he’s almost too embarrassed to admit it to himself.

I sat watching these characters shuffle towards some sense of connection, some sense of actualization, and realized that I had no idea where the next scene would take them. There’s a simmering feeling of realism to the drama and the comedy, an electric feeling of watching lives unfolding. The production design is remarkably drab, specificity of the highest sort. A cluttered house, a run-down high school, these are places that feel lived in, appropriately worn. The characters themselves, and the actions they take, don't feel driven by easily understandable movie emotions or the needs of the script. There’s an almost painful sense that these characters are real. I could identify with their feelings on an almost wounding level. Here are people who are all, in their own unique ways, desperately lonely. I could hardly stand to see them hurt.

So precisely acted and convincingly written, the film moves forward with the compelling, stimulating sensation of unpredictability. Some sequences had me breathlessly anticipating the next line, the next gesture. Individual moments are so deeply felt, so generously heartfelt, that I couldn’t help but be amazed. It also feels so painfully accurate, especially at its most acutely awkward, when the characters are most suffering from raw adolescent alienation that it can be incredibly difficult to watch. I suppose it’s inevitable in some ways for a film that feels so real to end with a sense of incompletion.  Could real life ever be wrapped up as neatly and completely as an impeccably structured film? Of course not, and that this movie tries to reach some kind of satisfyingly conclusion is ultimately it’s biggest misstep in a final shot that’s too simple and small to be definitive. It has the feel and form of a conclusion but lacks the content of one. I hardly cared. It is, after all, just one shot, and the way there is so excruciatingly complicated.

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