Jacob Wysocki plays the title character in Terri, a grossly obese high-school kid who wears pajamas to school because this is a Sundance film and fat kids wear pajamas in Sundance flicks, OK? He’s an odd kid, even without the extra 250 pounds. His parents aren’t around, and he’s left to look after his uncle (Creed Bratton), who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. In his spare hours, Terri traps mice and feeds them to birds and watches because this is a Sundance film and fat kids wear pajamas to school, have uncles played by guys named Creed, and trap mice and feed them to birds while watching.
A complete outcast at school and referred often to as Double D, Terri’s principal (John C. Reilly) takes pity on him and sets up weekly meetings to shoot the shit and eat malt balls. Terri finds an appreciative connection with his principal, who was himself a “monster” in high school, but it’s almost spoiled when Terri learns that the principal collects freaks, dweebs, and spazzoids.
Things begin to pick up for Terri when he, along with half the school, espies a classmate finger-fucking a pretty blonde girl, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), in home economics class. Suddenly ostracised, Heather warms to Terri’s niceties, and along with another outcast with severe personality problems, the three bond over their shared insecurities.
There are several really beautiful, poignant moments in Terri, and the touching and assured interplay between Terri and John C. Reilly’s principal provides a solid base of comedy to keep Azazel Jacobs’ film from wallowing in sadness. But the way that Jacobs’ lyrically handles his characters, bringing out their soulfulness and pushing them together, turns painfully dark in the third act, where he exposes those characters’ bruises and then pokes at them until they’re raw and bloody.
The third act, a whiskey-fueled bonding session between our lonely souls, nearly derails an otherwise delicately constructed film. Jacobs’ treatment of Terri here feels unnecessarily cruel, making for a painfully uncomfortable viewing experience. He takes that Tom McCarthy narrative template and he strips the heartwarming gentleness out and replaces it with harder truths almost too difficult to witness. We know that Terri is fat. We know that he feels bad about himself. We know that he’s mired in a sea of conflicting emotions. But Jacobs wants to take the viewer deeper into that morass of insecurity and self-consciousness, to experience what he’s experiencing, and the emotional shift is too abrupt, too deep. It becomes impossible to pull back and give Terri the ambiguous sense of hope that the film wants to impart. It doesn’t make it a bad film, but it does make it one that’s hard to watch without wanting to crawl inside your jacket and hide from the stifling awkwardness.
Terri screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The film opens in limited release today.