Terri, a film by Momma’s Man director Azazel Jacobs and freshman scripter Patrick Dewitt, also takes the less-is-more approach, but with less success. A Sundance favorite—need I say more?—Terri is more character study than story, though we ironically don’t learn a whole lot about the character under the lens. We just know that he’s frowning when the film opens and smiling when it closes, with a whole lot of not-much happening in between.
The titular character (Jacob Wysocki) is introduced soaking in a bathtub before eating breakfast with his sometimes-senile uncle (The Office’s Creed Bratton), throwing some pajamas over his plus-plus size frame, and heading to school. Terri always wears pajamas there, officially because he says they’re comfortable but likely because, at 15, he’s already given up on having much of a life. Most people notice Terri only to make fun of him, though school principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) reaches out to him because he thinks Terri’s special. And not necessarily in a good way: After Fitzgerald bullshits Terri into a weekly “talk” by saying he makes a point of learning the names of the good-hearted students as well as the bad-hearted ones every year—of course, Terri’s a good one—Terri finds out that Fitzgerald also counsels challenged students, and challenged students only. Back to feeling like a fat freak.
But after Terri confronts him (saying he focuses his attention only on “monsters”) Fitzgerald shows Terri a scrapbook of photos of his childhood. (Pointing to himself as a toddler, Fitzgerald amusingly says, “What could go wrong? It’s Shangri-La.”) Turns out he was a “monster,” too, so, you know, he gets Terri. All is cool between them again—at least until Terri learns that Fitzgerald whips out the photos for other students after claiming to Terri he’s never shown them to anyone before. Cue an interminable back-and-forth between friendship and antagonism; meanwhile we learn less about Terri during these sessions than in the classroom and at home. Turns out he is one of the good-hearted ones—I’d give details, but they comprise just about the entire plot.
Wysocki, a relative newcomer, makes a convincing sad-sack, though you don’t necessarily pity him—some developments suggest he’d do fairly well socially if he didn’t, say, wear pajamas all the time. Reilly’s character, meanwhile, is a loopy one, frequently yelling at students if sometimes only for show. (He wants to entertain his secretary, who’s dying. When Terri asks of what, Fitzgerald replies, “She’s dying of cigarettes, OK? She’s dying of death.”) He’s funny but inconsistently drawn; his outbursts seem like the cruel games of a nutjob, making his assertion that he’s trying to help Terri out because he’s been there not quite believable. But we do see enough of Terri’s day-to-day, at least at home, to buy one idea the movie’s selling: Fitzgerald tells him, “Life’s a mess, dude. But we’re all just doing the best we can.”