Jacob Wysocki makes his subtly confident film debut in "Terri" as a misfit teen who's comfortable in his own skin — even though there's a lot of it.
Heavyset, soft-spoken and reserved, he makes the same solitary trek to school each day in his pajamas — "They're just comfortable on me," he reasons — but barely makes much of an impression on anyone once he gets there, except to serve as a target of torment.
What's fascinating about director Azazel Jacobs' quietly beautiful film, though, is that it never condescends to Terri, never pities him, because Terri doesn't pity himself. He is who he is: no-nonsense, observant and smarter than he looks. He goes about his days, living in a cluttered home with his aging uncle (Creed Bratton) who's showing early signs of Alzheimer's.
Terri doesn't even realize how badly he wants friends until he gets the chance to make some.
The high school's vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald, is the first of them. He takes Terri under his wing and makes him his latest project, inviting him to share Monday mornings in his office where they can hang out and get to know each other. The always unpredictable and versatile John C. Reilly plays him as an affable goofball, a man who means well but is given to mercurial outbursts. (The script from Patrick deWitt also has Reilly spell things out that should be implied: "Life's a mess, dude. But we're all just doing the best we can." Thankfully, he does so sparingly.)
What Terri comes to understand is that he's one of many students Fitzgerald has taken on: a sort of cadre of freaks, losers and outcasts. In an artsier, edgier take on "The Breakfast Club" — which is not a criticism coming from this critic — Terri forges a sweet, unexpected bond with two of them. There's Chad (Bridger Zadina), the scrawny and volatile troublemaker, and Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), a popular girl who becomes a pariah after a sexual encounter during home economics class.
A scene in which the three of them get intoxicated together percolates with a steady tension and is full of surprises. Lonely and needy in their own individual ways, they're feeling themselves and each other out as they teeter on the brink of adulthood, and each word and moment rings absolutely true.
All three young performers are strong here, but Wysocki especially never seems like he's "acting" during these scenes of adolescent drama. He just is. The lead role in "Terri" was only his second audition ever, and his performance makes you hope that truthful material like this continues to come his way.
"Terri," an ATO Pictures release, is rated R for sexual content, language some drug and alcohol use, all involving teens. Running time: 105 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.