In Terri, the Ache of Our Former Selves

Alice Gregory | July 8, 2011
Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly in "Terri."

It’s not often that we’re genuinely forced to remember the worst time in our life. In most movies that depict the daily horror of high school, we’re meant to relate to the characters’ distress and feel sorry for them — not for our former selves. These movies may evoke rusty aches and pains, but seldom do they make us vicariously relive the entire experience.

Azazel Jacobs’ new film Terri is different though. In it we remember just how miserable it was to only-almost be a person — and one we didn’t even like at that. Jacob Wysocki plays the title role; he’s a neckless teenager, friendless at first, who pads around in pajamas and enjoys killing mice. He lives with his dying Uncle James (played — unrecognizably — by Creed Bratton of The Office) and is a general vision of unalloyed pity. Kids make fun of him at school in that doubly cruel way of inflicting pain for nothing more than their own entertainment — woofing, pounding his shoulders, and calling him names as though cheering for a sports team. His teachers seem oblivious to the dynamic (in one particularly wretched scene, the bell rings, and Terri walks out of class, momentarily turning to his homeroom teacher for at least a glance of recognition, and she doesn’t even look up).

John. C. Reilly plays Mr. Fitzgerald, the assistant principal and ad-hoc guidance counselor for the school’s most monstrous students. After spotting Terri in the hall one day and assuming the obvious — no friends, little ambition — he calls him in to his office and schedules weekly Monday meetings: “We’ll check in with each other, see how we’re faring against the world.” The first-person plural sounds patronizing — to us and to Terri — but soon it becomes obvious that Mr. Fitzgerald means it literally. We don’t usually expect vulnerability from authority figures. Teachers don’t often disclose their own after-school suffering to their students, and so many of us never see our parents cry.  But emotional transparency is best cultivated mutually between two people, in a back-and-forth dance of confidence and candor. It’s Mr. Fitzgerald’s disclosures and desperation that make him a figure of possible trust, and soon Terri considers him his close and only friend.

But Terri is horrified to learn who else at school has weekly meetings with Mr. Fitzgerald — a boy in a wheel chair and another with Downs Syndrome among them — and feels betrayed when he hears from Chad, a reedy trichotillomanic, that Mr. Fitzgerald’s shares secrets with all his students. It takes Mr. Fitzgerald’s genuine regret to bring Terri back. “Life’s a mess, dude,” Fitzgerald sighs regretfully, “but we’re all just doing the best we can.”

Terri is inadvertently responsible for the ruining — and subsequent saving — of Heather, the most popular girl in school (are all Heathers pretty?). An unexpected figure of public shaming, Heather is suddenly on a rung of the social ladder closer to Terri’s, and they forge a friendship. We see Terri change, though slowly and minutely. His transformation (no more mice-killing, finally has companionship) is rendered brilliantly. It’s incremental and almost invisible. Terri’s gait switches only subtly, and from a distance — even to us at times — he looks the same. But Wysocki convinces us that what might appear as pale improvement, is, in fact, a major physic shift. The immense dissonance of overwhelming emotions and their almost unnoticeable manifestation is impossible to portray without first-person monologues, but in Terri there are none. It’s hard to tell whether this is a testament to Wysocki’s acting or Jacob’s directing. It’s probably a bit of both.

Though the film is mostly just a portrait of a good guy as a young man, it ventures to speak grim truths about high school, which older viewers — especially female ones — hopefully only half-remember. That Heather could be so quickly and completely destroyed is an indicator of the still-terrible state of adolescent girlhood and our hypocritical attitude towards teenage sexuality. So precipitous a social decline could never happen to a boy. Heather ends up as untouchable as Terri, and though undoubtedly their shared caste benefits them both in the end (the friendship is pure and good), their powerlessness as fellow suffers still seems symptomatic of something really devastating.

Terri is listed as a comedy, and there are funny parts (John C. Reilly giving a pep talk could never be anything else), but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing it and not leaving the theater with a deep sigh and a profound sense of relief.  If Terri is a comedy, it’s only in the more technical sense of the term. It doesn’t conclude in marriage or anything, but the bad memories it conjures do make adulthood look fantastic by comparison.  There’s no happy ending — there isn’t much of an ending at all — but there is an assurance of one, and in the biography of any viewer over 18, its promise is fulfilled. It really does get better!

Terri is playing at the Angelika Film Center, at the corner of  Mercer and Houston.