I would forgive you for avoiding Terri based on its marketing copy. There’s the banal tagline — “You don’t have to fit in to belong” — and the vague, insufferable character descriptions of a “quirky outsider,” a “goofy and wildly irreverent vice principal” and a “beautiful misfit” that sound like the trappings of every other cookie-cutter indie quirk-fest that’s emerged over the last decade.
I probably wouldn’t have given Terri a second thought if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to see two of director Azazel Jacobs’ first features, the deadpan DIY comedy The Good Times Kid and the atmospheric Momma’s Man. Seeing his name in the credit block for Terri, I was instantly interested, and while it’s certainly a step toward the mainstream for Jacobs, Terri is another affecting, idiosyncratic film that defies the lazy descriptors it’s been saddled with.
Relative newcomer Jacob Wysocki stars as Terri, an overweight high-schooler who’s taken to wearing pajamas to school and isn’t able to muster much interest in being there. He lives with his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), whose mind wanders a razor-thin membrane between dementia and lucidity, and is probably the closest thing he has to a friend.
At school, the overeager principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) takes an interest in Terri and sets up regular meetings with him, inadvertently lumping him in with a group of social outcasts that includes the manic Chad (Bridger Zadina), much to Terri’s chagrin. And then there’s the girl — a cute blonde named Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) who becomes an outcast herself after a very public sexual shaming by her boyfriend.
Now, even a cursory description of the plot seems to set up a very distinct — and totally obvious — kind of story in which we discover that everyone is a misfit to some extent and even those on the fringes of the social construct are special, valuable people who have a lot to offer. But Terri isn’t that kind of film. It has the courage to present Terri not as some secret savant, but just a normal kid, with behavior that’s both admirable and despicable. Nor is his social status ascribed to some kind of popularity scale, where he’s rejected because he’s fat. If anything, he’s just not all that into other people.