Terri is an intimate, autumnal-lit film about an overweight high school boy and his unexpected relationship with his assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald. Though we locals can sense that the movie was filmed right under our noses, the location is meant to be a woodsy Anywhere, USA. The players are Everyman. Their situation is both heart-rending and heartening.
Terri is apparently suffering from anomie, which we see from the get-go as we watch him shuffle tardily to school wearing pajamas and Crocs. He is not contriving eccentricity. He is odd. Terri’s parents are inexplicably absent from his life, so that explains one level of daily pain. Instead, Terri lives with his uncle, whose growing dementia shadows their daily lives and foreshadows a time of yet deeper isolation for Terri. However, the uncle has occasional astute moments, so beautifully illuminated when Uncle James informs Terri, “Don’t mean to be rude here. Just have to take advantage of this window right now,” gently tapping his temple. And despite what others at school may think, Terri does have genuine social intelligence. He responds graciously to his uncle’s ebbs and flows. Terri runs their household, tends to his uncle’s medications, steps in when the uncle stares uncomprehendingly at food burning on the skillet. The Terri we see at home has a maturity that almost all school personnel miss when they perceive him to be a shambling misfit.
Of course, Terri is referred to the office for counseling. This is where the movie gains traction. John C. Reilly evokes that administrator who appears initially to be the school-policy mouthpiece. But as he interacts with Terri, we start to recognize a teacher-iconoclast, the guy unafraid to tell a kid that life can be a vessel loaded with both manure and flowers. We are going to have to choose which aroma we prefer and work for its fragrance every day of our lives. For Terri, this kind of adult influence is puzzling, then intriguing, then disappointing, and finally satisfying. What Terri learns from his most imperfect, candid counselor is the basis of any trusting relationship: It’s evidenced in the healthy patterns of friendship, family or loved ones. A reliable relationship has to be tensile enough to stretch and contract with the times and not snap on us. Such resolute knowledge applies to Terri, to Mr. Fitzgerald, to you, and to me.
Terri is rated R for a sexual situation that may make viewing with younger teens uncomfortable. There is also a dicey-appearing implication with some special needs students that actually resolves quite fairly. Even if you have seen the entire catalogue of quirky coming-of-age films, you may still find delight in Terri. And those of us who work in high schools should never grow so complacent that we gaze over the river of youth without plumbing the deeper currents that determine our students’ lives.
Terri, starring Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly
Laemmle Playhouse 7
673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 626.844.6500, laemmle.com
Jean Gillis is a high school teacher, Altadena resident and proprietor of the blog Dating Yourself in Pasadena.