By Kim Voynar

Review: Terri

Note: This review ran earlier this year during Sundance. I’m re-running it today because Terri opens in limited release. Go see it. It’s great.

Terri, the latest effort by Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man) is everything a coming-of-age story should be: it’s honest, it’s real, it’s completely unpretentious, and it utterly lacks any whiff of the preciousness that so often permeates indie films that feel as if they were made with the specific goal of getting into Sundance.

Momma’s Man was about Mikey, who goes home to New York for a couple days and ends up temporarily abandoning his wife and baby while he regresses back to adolescence on his home turf, reevaluating the life choices that brought him to the responsibility of husband-and-fatherhood. It was a deeply personal and assured film for Jacobs, but while it wasn’t what I would call poorly shot, it did lack somewhat the clarity and self-confidence that’s evident in Terri.

With Momma’s Man, we felt like we were immersed in Mikey’s life via someone — an invisible friend, perhaps, following him around with a video camera and capturing these days in his life as he sifted through old school papers, caressed the guitar on which he’d strummed through his teenage angst, reconnected with an old girl friend. Because of some things going on in my own life and marriage at that time, I didn’t have a lot of patience for this character when I first saw Momma’s Man. He annoyed me, even pissed me off, which his lingering depression and unwillingness to grow the fuck up already and get back to his wife and baby. I cast aside my personal issues with the character, though, and reviewed the film positively on what I felt were its significant merits in storytelling. But I still didn’t like that guy.

And yet, I’ve thought about Momma’s Man in the years since more than I’ve thought about many other films that, in a rush of Sundance headiness and altitude, I felt much more warmly toward in the immediacy of walking out of a screening room. I revisited aspects of the story as my own marriage was collapsing, searched in its story for threads of clues to why accepting the mantle of adulthood can be so difficult, and I got how it was more about Mikey figuring out how to reconnect with his wife and child than wanting to abandon them. In time, I lost my impatience for the character and just felt the story as it woke up occasionally from its dormancy in my subconscious mind, rising up from time to time to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, remember me? I’m still here.”

It’s a rare film at Sundance that sticks with you like that.

Which brings us around to Jacob’s new film Terri, in many ways a more mature work in terms of the way it looks, in how the shots are framed, in the tightness with which the narrative flows. You can see, here and there, shadows of the director who created Momma’s Man within its frames, but Jacobs, who had already demonstrated a remarkable talent for creating a meaningful character, here shows that he can also tell a fully drawn story, one that draws you into the life of its main character, a gentle giant of a lonely kid named Terri, and the equally sad and lonely assistant principal (John C. Reilly) who befriends him.

You don’t really need to know more about Terri than this: Terri (Jacob Wysocki, just terrific) is a lonely, very overweight kid with no friends, who hates going to school because he’s so picked on. He wears pajamas everywhere, even to school, he says because they’re comfortable, but probably also because at his size, it’s hard to find things that fit, and because he lives with his uncle, and they’re poor, and they don’t have a lot of money to spend on shopping at the big and tall shop. His uncle has memory problems, and Terri cares for him more than the other way around. He likes to walk alone through the woods. He handles the teasing of his peers with a quiet dignity.

He had me at the pajamas.

When the assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (oddly, there doesn’t seem to be a principal at this school, just the assistant principal) pays attention to him, talking to him about how he’s doing, Terri is at first surprised, then pleased. And his relationship with Mr. Fitzgerald slowly starts to open Terri up, to change him. He makes a couple of friends. And most of all, he learns, slowly, to like himself.

There’s not a moment in Terri that feels contrived, that rings untrue, that plays as though you’re watching a film designed to get into this or any other film festival. There’s nothing “twee” or “precious” about it; no one “meets cute” or sits around bemoaning the meaninglessness of their existence. There’s only a couple scenes in which friends sit around talking, but unlike the mumblecore films, when this happens they actually have things to say, and many of those things are subtext that’s taking place underneath the words being spoken. Every character in the film, from the ancient school secretary to the acid-tongued teacher to the mice in the attic that Terri has to lay traps for, is there for a reason.

Where Momma’s Man was the work of a maturing filmmaker; Terri is the work of that filmmaker come to fruition: it’s personal and thoughtful, it speaks to what it’s like to feel like an outsider without reaching for the low-hanging fruit in finding ways to express those feelings. The things we learn about Terri, the way we feel about him, come as much from what we’re bringing into it as from what Jacobs is putting out there. He offers no excuses, no easy answers, no exposition to explain why things are they way they are. Terri’s life is what it is, but the glimpse we have into Terri’s world shows us what he might be.

Simply sublime. This, my friends, is independent film as it should be — and Sundance as it should be. Don’t miss it.

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