“Terri” is the under the radar gem of the summer. It is sweet without being saccharine, funny without being unrealistic, and insightful without being preachy. Most of all, it earns every minute of its slow-paced running time.
Our titular anti-hero, Terri, is an overweight outcast in his small town high school. He lives with his mentally unstable uncle (Creed Bratton), who feeds his nephew toast and beans for basically every meal.
Terri’s demeanor at school worsens every day, and his principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) takes notice. Fitzgerald begins to meet with him frequently, and makes a real effort to turn Terri’s life around.
That last paragraph might have sounded like the premise for a Hallmark movie; but that would be looking at “Terri” incorrectly. It doesn’t look to solve all its problems by a few exchanged sentences and a lot of tears, but rather it goes deep into all of the problems the characters experience.
What also enriches the experience is the film’s ability to cover each character’s perspective and its ability to speak truly. Chad (Bridger Zedina), at first seems like nothing more than one of those people Fitzgerald describes as a “bad heart.” But then, writer and director Azazel Jacobs remarkably finds a way to keep him in the film, and his insecurities that are revealed turn him into more than a caricature. The same goes for Heather (Olivia Croicchia), whom Terri helps save from nearly getting kicked out of school. While “Terri” advertises itself as being mainly about the relationship between Terri and Fitzgerald, it is really about Terri’s relations with everyone in his life.
“Terri” is one of the rare films that can be described as a comedy relying on honesty. This is the kind of film that finds malted milk balls and long, awkward silences to be hilarious. A lot of this can be attributed to the sharp, realistic dialogue by Patrick DeWitt as well as Jacobs’s painfully sincere direction.
“Terri” benefits from having a mainly unknown cast. Most of its actors will breakout into bigger roles over the next few years. The most famous actor in the cast, Reilly, has jumped back and fourth over the years between drama (“Magnolia”) and comedy (“Step Brothers”). In “Terri,” he balances the two out perfectly. One of his funniest skills has to do with his voice, and how he can raise it to a level so loud and ridiculous that it could never be taken seriously. He also acts exactly as a corny high school principal who gives his students sunglasses would act.
And then, there are those moments where Reilly makes Fitzgerald more than that inspirational principal. It might just be the way he reacts to an important hug in the film that shows that he really cares. There are few characters I say this about in modern film, but Reilly makes Fitzgerald, well, inspirational. His lessons to Terri feel believable and actually make sense. It makes you wonder why Fitzgerald isn’t off doing bigger and better things. But then again, inspiring teenagers isn’t so bad.
To put it simply, “Terri” believes that everyone has their problems and justifications for bad behavior. To make that point a little deeper, “Terri” also believes that the only way to fight through those problems is to connect with other people, rather than distance yourself from them. “Terri” is a film that requires patience, but like its main character, the more you wait, the more you realize there is something truly great there.