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A high school odyssey–sans clichés

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By Rabbi Ben Kamin 

Rabbi Ben Kamin

SAN DIEGO — Even the androgynous name of the main character of this tender, sunlit motion picture, “Terri,” lends to its delightfully irresolute and thought-provoking nature.  Like a quiet drumbeat that somehow picks up its own melody, this atypical feature about a typical postmodern theme—adolescent misfits—creeps into your heart and mind without crushing your senses.

It would have been so easy for director Azazel Jacobs to have led the primarily young cast into a series of clichés about teen loneliness, depravity, and lack of inspiration.  But the conceit of this movie is its unyielding accession to the prevailing sadness of life in the 21st century: life is filled with empty spaces, most folks are disconnected from others, and even in this era of global social media and “inclusiveness,” even kids are socially cruel to each other.

The movie is not in denial about the harsh caste system and the hardware of subjugation and disinterest that exist in American high schools.  But rather that resorting to rubber stamp depictions of the attendant abuses that dominate in such hallways and classrooms, or even worse, laughing at them with vulgar scenes of pubescent sexuality or gross food fights, the production actually grieves with us.  In this, the script is anchored by the brilliantly understated performance of Jacob Wysocki in the title role.

The large young man, trapped at home with an ailing uncle, long-abandoned by his parents, preferring pajamas to daytime clothing (at school and even a dark set worn for the particularly sad funeral of the school secretary), obsessed with catching rodents, unable to articulate his ocean of unrealized emotions, finds his way into our hearts and minds with the soft-spoken honesty of his intermittent words.

Even under the burden of his obesity, the specific taunts he experiences for his unbearably mammoth breasts, Terri (short for Terrin, we learn at one point) is straightforward and affectingly truthful about his questions and bewilderments.  He is just looking for somewhere to alight—no easy task for a boy this overweight, this bereft of social skills, so without role models.

He finds someone to believe in—even after a cogently-handled betrayal of sorts—in the character of “Mr. Fitzgerald,” the school principal played with great intuition and balance by the increasingly valuable John C. Reilly.   Reilly could have resorted to his brand antics and devilish dispositions so effectively deported in many of his roles.  But he is too good an actor for that and the part of this genuinely compassionate, if not always skillful school leader, requires more nuance.  The result is a touchingly vindicated relationship between a cast-out boy and a middle-aged man trying to make up for his own organic failures.  It works.

There are also vivid and hard-working performances by Bridger Zadina as another, particularly hardened oddity and delinquent named Chad and by Olivia Crocicchia as the willowy, centerpiece child-woman, Heather, who is both prized and defiled by the school boy-brats.   The pathetic troika of Terri, Chad, and Heather share an alcohol and drug-induced night of trembling, irrational, even sickening sexual journeying that concludes in an appropriately ambivalent stand-off.

The movie’s excellent epigram is delivered by Heather herself, when asked by the painfully unwanted Chad, “Why did let you let yourself be fingered in Home Economics?”   She replies, “Sometimes, you just want to be wanted.”

That’s right, kid.

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Rabbi Kamin is a freelance writer based in San Diego.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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