Review: “Terri” Is Cringingly Good

"Terri" is that rare teen drama that actually depicts high school as being even worse than you remember, while miraculously maintaining a sweetness and sense of hope.

Filmmakers regularly try to capture the struggle of surviving high school, with the degrees of success as varying as the approaches. But few have the courage to shine a light on what a truly horrifying and miserable time it really is. Azazel Jacobs' new film, "Terri," captures the horror about as honestly and unflinchingly as you could hope (?) for.

Jacob Wysocki stars in the title role as a morbidly obese teen who lives in fly-buzzing squalor with his Uncle James (the brilliantly cast Creed Bratton), a man slowly slipping into dementia. With no fully functioning adult in play, Terri primarily subsists on a diet of beans-on-toast and wears pajamas to school. Rough.

The closest thing to a friend that Terri has is Vice Principal Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the kind of educator who manages to embarrass both himself and his charges by trying to talk cool. Like most adults, nothing he says to Terri is more damaging than the lies he tells him, but unlike most grown-ups he has the courage to admit when he's screwed up, "because that's what people do."

Wysocki and Reilly develop the kind of pained rapport you'd expect between a troubled kid and an adult whose job it is to care about him. More importantly their give-and-take turns into that of two people who genuinely like each other, in a manner that's almost unnoticeable, yet totally believable.

Patrick DeWitt's screenplay is a subtle examination of the cruel nature of Darwinism, the food chain, and how Terri's relationship with food is keeping him walled off (quite literally in one scene) from life. Food is how he relates to people, how he hides from them, and why they mock him.

The film's denouement feels a bit strained, as DeWitt and Jacobs try too hard to make a point that could've been made more easily, but they redeem themselves with the manner in which things are ultimately resolved, allowing Terri to crash back to Earth with his dignity intact.

"Terri" opens Friday in limited release

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