A genially despised genre appealing to a constant and constantly expanding demographic, the high school movie has for years provided ambitious or oddball filmmakers with a measure of cover: It allowed for Gus Van Sant's fragmented, kinetic Paranoid Park and provided the framework for Antonio Campos's cyberthriller, Afterschool. The upcoming Myth of the American Sleepover is another example, as is Azazel Jacobs' sweet, strange Breakfast Club revision, Terri.
Terri, adapted by Patrick deWitt from his linked short stories, concerns an obese 15-year-old, a de facto orphan, living in a ramshackle home with a dispirited, perhaps mentally ill uncle for whom he has to care. Although a near-pariah at school, Terri (Jacob Wysocki, in an impressive debut) is comfortable with himself, or at least self-defended, sauntering late into homeroom still wearing his pajamas. Impervious to the imprecations of gym teachers and the taunts of the class bully, he is recruited for regular counseling by the school's friendly assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly, indispensable in his conviction being in that he is cast as the movie's least convincing character).
Like Fitzgerald, who apparently has unlimited time as well as a propensity for "duding" his mainly male charges, Terri has a good heart — he also functions as the garrulous educator's straight man. Although temporarily put off once he realizes that Fitzgerald's specialty is counseling "monsters" like himself, Terri befriends pint-size Chad (Bridger Zadina), the most obnoxious of patients, and defends the sexually provocative Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) when she is ostracized for allowing the bully to finger her in Home Economics class.
If Terri has a wryly contemplative tone, it may be because intelligent but unworldly Terri is himself a student of life, whether transfixed by the sight of Heather's abuse or, acting on his uncle's instructions, setting mousetraps in the attic, then leaving the dead mice in the woods to see what will happen. Despite the boy's intermittent resistance, Fitzgerald's treatment shows signs of working. Heather blossoms, Terri's PJs seem a bit more stylish, and Chad becomes almost human. The film's climax and set piece is a sensationally sensitive quasi-"orgy" in which the three kids take advantage of Terri's home situation to get several types of hammered with unpredictable but not unexpected results.
There's very little here that's cute or quirky, although, given its subject, Terri is unavoidably didactic. The hero doesn't learn from therapy so much as he learns about it. ("We're all just doing the best we can," Fitzgerald says when Terri criticizes his method.) In lesser hands, Terri might have been an exemplary instance of the after-school specials telecast throughout the filmmaker's childhood. But Jacobs, whose parents I have known for decades, has an empathetic feel for adolescent geekery, sleaze, and embarrassment. The cast is spirited, the premise is honest, and the direction is sufficiently skillful to obscure most of the platitudes inherent in the material.
Terri is more conventional than Jacobs's 2008 breakthrough Momma's Man, in which a thirtysomething husband and father visits his childhood home and is unable to leave, but his staging remains subtly eccentric — the compositions are oblique or cluttered; the action is often glimpsed through barely cracked doors. He's sensitive to form and inventive in his camera placement. More than a few shots are initially centered on nothingness, with no apparent subject. There are times when this weirdly bucolic movie suggests a less whimsical version of David Gordon Green's early youth films (George Washington and All the Real Girls) and others when it projects a near-Lynchian sense of grotesque normality. Terri's tumbledown digs may not be the overgrown, art-crammed Lower Manhattan loft to which Mikey returns in Momma's Man, but it's fertile fantasy terrain nonetheless.