Terri, a generously spirited dramedy in the high-school-misfit genre (indie division), finds director Azazel Jacobs taking a calling-card approach to his fourth feature. Working from a script adapted by Patrick deWitt from his short stories, Jacobs seems determined to give this story of an unhappy fat kid’s halting progress toward sociability in the hills outside Los Angeles some of the grit (and loner’s anguish) of Momma’s Man, but only what the targeted limited-release audience can comfortably bear. There’s no zippy pop soundtrack, and the director and cinematographer Tobias Datum excel in presenting the clutter of the ramshackle house Terri (Jacob Wysocki, fortuitously unsentimental) shares with his tenuously medicated uncle (Creed Bratton) as they did the holy mess of a Manhattan loft in the preceding film, but the miserabilism of troubled teens is tempered with old jokes—a gym-rope climber forgotten by a ranting teacher, a befuddled clergyman presiding at a funeral—and emotional wounds that fade rather than scar.
Parentless, overweight Terri, a boy who endures nicknames like “Double D” from bullies on those days when he makes it to class in pajamas (“They’re just comfortable”), is suspended in an inertia with the potential for sadism—a fascination with feeding mice to birds of prey is briefly indulged—when he is marked for weekly counseling sessions by vice principal Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly adding to his gallery of well-meaning galoots). Reilly, born to make office walls ring with shouts of “Sit down! In a chair!,” is supposed to be an ambiguous mix of brotherly bonhomie and dubious motives, but Terri is soon disenchanted not so much by Fitzgerald’s white lies and theatricalized regular guyness as his own peers, “a group of monsters” also on Mr. F’s appointment book: spindly, scalp-picking provocateur Chad (Bridger Zadina), and pretty, formerly popular Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who’s demoted to pariah status after she allows a grungy shithead to finger-fuck her in full view of the Home Ec class. Naturally, it’s among this mismatched trio that unspoken yearnings, competitiveness, and needs must be resolved, and so they are in a lengthy, authentically awkward scene of sneaky drinking, ostentatious pissing, and fumbled seduction.
The juvenile performances are compelling (young Crocicchia’s precocious flirt is the most sketchily drawn of the isolated threesome, as tends to happen with the Girl in nearly all man-made movies exploring adolescent longing), and little about Terri is smug or cynical. (When Terri answers Heather’s query about a grandstanding act of sympathy on her behalf, his “I dunno, why not?” comes out pure.) But the film’s ultimate reassurances still feel a bit hedged, even in its sweet final observation of the ambling Wysocki’s sunlit face. Jacobs shouldn’t be expected to making films as surprising and unguarded as Momma’s Man for the length of his career, but for all of his sophomore effort’s decency, one hopes for less hewing to a template and more idiosyncrasy from his next work.