I wonder if young people today look at John Hughes' movies like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty In Pink the way people of my generation see teen films of the 1950s -- charming and funny, but sanitized and safe almost to the point of parody. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- sometimes we like knowing that everything is going to work out, that the good-hearted, sensitive outcast will end up with the most attractive kid at school, the bullies will be vanquished, and that the future will be so bright you have to wear shades.
But if you're looking for a film that more closely resembles the true plight of the picked-on high schooler, you might want to track down the new indie dramedy Terri, which dares to reflect some of the uncomfortable realities of high school that most of us already know as it tells the story of Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an overweight 15 year old who is so resigned to being a teased outcast that he wears pajamas to school. But through a friendship with a sympathetic assistant principal (John C. Reilly) and two other outcasts (Bridger Zadina and Olivia Crocicchia), Terri begins, ever so slightly, to see that his future might not be as dark as it seems -- though probably not bright enough to require protective eyewear.
Listen to my review of Terri on the Uprising radio show by clicking on the image below.
For many of us of a certain age, the films of writer/director John Hughes -- such as Sixteen Candles, the Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off -- are the templates for the American high school experience. This is strange since I'm going to assume that none of our high school experiences were like anything even resembling a John Hughes film, but we all like the idea of the downtrodden outcasts we relate to eventually winning the hearts of the beautiful, popular kids on the way to becoming the heroes of the school.
In that sense, the new film Terri, written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, can be seen as an anti-John Hughes movie, though this film, which was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, is more than able to stand on its own.
It tells the story of a 15 year old named Terri, played by Jacob Wysocki, who has been dealt a rough hand in life. Not only have Terri's parents left him to take care of his uncle, who is suffering from some sort of dementia and is played by Creed Bratton, but Terri is overweight and friendless, causing him to be picked on mercilessly at school. While the obstacles to coolness and popularity in many teen films are the absence of the right car or clothes, Terri is so far from being cool that he's given up trying to attain it, wearing pajamas to school (when he shows up at all) so he can feel comfortable physically with the knowledge that he never will socially.
But that begins to change, ever so slightly, when Terri's absences catch the attention of Mr. Fitzgerald, the school's assistant principal played by John C. Reilly. Fitzgerald recognizes that while Terri is odd, he isn't bad, so he sets up weekly meetings with Terri to get to know him and find out what's going on in his life.
Through these meetings, Terri meets Chad, a more troubled outsider played by Bridger Zadina, who has a habit of pulling out his own hair. Terri also meets Heather, played by Olivia Crocicchia, who has recently gotten in trouble for fooling around with her boyfriend during class.
Terri isn't a plot-driven movie. It's not about getting a driver's license, going to prom, fixing a trashed house before the parents get home, or even getting the dream date. Instead, the film's message is summed up when Fitzgerald tells Terri, "Life's a mess, dude. But we're all just doing the best we can." It might not be the most uplifting message, but it's definitely a more accurate way to look at high school, as well as life, especially for someone facing the obstacles Terri is.
While his relationships with Fitzgerald, Chad, and Heather have their ups and downs and the characters' motives are sometimes murky, it feels like it's a positive thing that Terri is finally allowing people into his bubble at all, even though it sometimes leaves him feeling hurt and confused, which is made worse because of Terri's lack of social skills. And by the end of the film, it's unclear where all the characters will end up, which is how I felt when I graduated from high school. But through his friendship with Fitzgerald, Terri is able to see that not only are his feelings and mistakes normal, but that they don't go away with age. While that might sound depressing to some, isn't it better for young people to realize that we're all flawed and, to some degree, flailing, than to believe that the adults and pretty people have it all figured out?
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