There's a moment near the beginning of "Terri," the upcoming indie dramedy about an overweight student struggling to find his place in the labyrinth of horror known as high school, in which the miserable protagonist is sitting in his vice principal's office, awkward and unsure of why he is there. Vice Principal Fitzgerald, played by John C. Reilly, pulls out a tin of malt balls from his desk and offers one to Terri, played by Jacob Wysocki, and the two sit in silence, chewing on the chocolate candies and contemplating things far beyond scholastics.
It takes the pair a good ten seconds of nearly dead screen time to finish chewing, and the camera holds on for the entire time, capturing every bite and swallow, saving each as a record of the discomfort. But while the scenario sounds excruciating for those involved, it draws some of the biggest laughs from the audience -- in large part because it is so painfully real.
"I wasn’t even playing it for a laugh," John C. Reilly told The Huffington Post at a reporters roundtable about the fim. "It’s like, it ends up being kind of funny in the movie, but in the moment I was just chewing and I couldn’t talk without spitting food out of my mouth, it takes a certain amount of time. And it’s just those weird little odd interactions that you remember from high school, when you’re first interacting with adults in an intense way that aren’t your parents or that aren’t your relatives."
Reilly's allusion to the small, true moments of high school, all the pain and discomfort and confusion, those are what make "Terri," a decidedly small film about small town struggles, authentic and work so well. Terri is mocked for his weight, alienated by peers and virtually alone at home as he cares for his uncle, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. He's taken to wearing flannel pajamas to school -- both an actualization, Reilly said, for that old nightmare of showing up to school in your PJs, and a sign that he's truly given up -- and receives attention only when his considerable upper chest is being squeezed by classmates.
Wysocki is far more personable in real life than is his character -- before being cast in this drama, he had strictly done comedy, including the show "Huge" -- but he said that he in many ways related to his character's struggles with bullying.
"The thing that that confused me is why people did it, like, why does this make me different?" he told HuffPo. "Just the fact that I’m big, like, that’s it? And I think Terri kind of questions the same thing, like, 'this is who I am, I might as well be comfortable with it, because they’re going to make fun of me regardless.' To me, I’m just like, this is who I am, why does it matter?… That’s what I really connected to, just the questioning of why this happens."
Director Azazel Jacobs had a similar view of the character, an innocent victim of teenage cruelty trying to understand how best to deal with it, not to mention why it's happening in the first place. Tackling bullying, he said, was fundamental to any realistic film about high school.
"Any story that depicts these years in any honest way has to deal with it," he said in another round table with reporters. "It’s just how it is. Especially with somebody like Terri, who’s not choosing to be a misfit, y’know? He’s not a skater, he’s not a stoner, he’s not that. He’s too big for this world, there’s nothing that he can do to fit in, there’s no space for him."
In that initial meeting in his office, Reilly's Fitzgerald tells Terri that he's "one of the good hearted kids," and giving him a small boost of confidence that allows him to speak to a pretty girl who has been ostracized for a peer-pressured sexual indiscretion; the sudden turning on Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), complete with a total campaign of stares and shunning, also rings true to high school drama. There are no outrageous pranks or ridiculous stunts pulled on her, just the stigma of straying outside the norm, which, as Terri's predicament makes clear, is the worst fate possible in high school.
The two seemingly mismatched teens -- she a pretty blonde, he a pajamas-clad fat kid -- grow closer, and Terri experiences his first pangs of potential lust. But that adolescent growth runs secondary to the relationship between pupil and vice principal; as Terri and Fitzgerald spend more time together, it's revealed that the adult, quietly in the throes of marriage turmoil, has precious little advice for Terri beyond earnest encouragement and companionship during a bumpy journey.
That, though, is part of what gives Reilly the opportunity to play the role in such a relatable and honest manner. Jacobs credits Reilly for threading a difficult character needle.
"I think a lot of the credit really goes to John, because I think the character could be really easily portrayed as someone to make fun of, and someone who’s just easy to laugh at," Jacobs said. "But I think that there’s pauses and there’s times and there’s the way he expresses them, that feel much more grounded... these are people that I know, the people that have stayed with me, they have felt very human to me, and I felt like that’s what John has done with this character."
Part of Reilly's ability to pull off that balance came from his own experience with teachers; at one point in the film, Fitzgerald takes Terri and another student to his secretary's funeral, a risky move that cements their friendship as something closer to equals than just student-teacher.
"It’s a little bit of this risky thing, like, I went out a couple of times with teachers in HS, and there’s this official capacity that they’re in, even though they’re out in the world," Reilly remembered. "Like, I went shopping for art supplies one time with the brother that taught art class at my school, and it was like, it was really fun actually, and I think we captured some that spirit like when they go out to the diner together and it’s like 'I can’t believe I’m sitting in the diner with my guidance counselor, it’s just so weird, you’re a human being.' So I think the movie really successfully captures that odd feeling of sitting with a teacher out of context, and it’s like sitting with a hero without their mask on or something, like wow they’re a human being, and somehow they seem smaller or more flawed and I think it’s one of the cool things about the film, you see that moment of honesty that ends up happening between them where the teacher basically admits 'I don’t know what I’m doing. The world is really messed up, and good luck to you kids, I hope you make it, I hope I make it.' I think it takes a certain amount of vulnerability on both of their parts to have that breakthrough moment, and I think it’s one of those things that makes the movie really original."
"Terri" hits theaters on July 1st.
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