You have to give filmmaker Azazel Jacobs credit for what he doesn't do in his film, Terri.
He doesn't create a feel-good teen world in which the underdog suddenly rises to the top or undergoes a life-changing makeover.
He doesn't give in to the urge for punchlines at regular intervals. He doesn't even make his central character particularly lovable.
Yes, you have to give him credit for fighting the formula. On the other hand, these are also things that work against Terri, a tale of a teen outsider and his strange relationship with a sympathetic vice principal who takes him on as a project.
When first seen, Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is making breakfast for his uncle (played with surprising subtlety and restraint by Creed Bratton of The Office). Uncle James may be in the early stages of dementia, or a shell-shocked veteran or both. Whatever the case, he's a weight on Teri's life, yet he's also Terri's apparent guardian.
An obese teen who is picked on for being overweight, Terri seemingly has given up. He wears pajamas to school because they're what he feels most comfortable in. He bides his time in class, shrugging off bullying, occasionally engaging with the girls in his cooking class, looking with longing at one girl, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), he would never dream of talking to. Indeed, he's the witness when the girl lets a popular kid known as Dirty Zack digitally penetrate her in home-ec class, an act which causes a small scandal.
After one too many tardies, Terri is sent to the office of the vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly). Though he spouts clichés with loud bluster, Mr. Fitzgerald recognizes a kindred spirit in Terri -- a kid who feels like an outsider -- the way Mr. Fitzgerald did when he was Terri's age. So he offers to let Terri skip his homeroom class once a week, to spend time just talking with Mr. Fitzgerald in his office.
The problem is that it takes almost half an hour for Jacobs to bring Terri to this juncture in the story. Until then, he's mostly observed Terri's days, which are so drab that, when Terri's uncle tells Terri to lay traps for the mice that have invaded their house, it becomes Terri's secretly thrilling obsession. He gets so caught up in killing mice that, when he's rid the house of pests, he starts setting traps in the woods.
Sure, you can read into this whatever you'd like: about Terri taking power by assuming a God-like role over rodents. But it's really just wheel-spinning until Terri's story with Mr. Fitzgerald begins.
Even then, the combination of the taciturn Terri -- not dumb, just silent -- and the gabby Mr. Fitzgerald should yield more pleasure than it does. But Wysocki isn't a particularly expressive actor. As good as Reilly can be, it's hard to tell sometimes just how self-aware Mr. Fitzgerald is. Is he putting on an act for Terri? Is his act who he actually is?
Eventually, Jacobs tethers Terri to another troubled student, the outgoing and chatty Chad (Bridger Zadina), who tries to push Terri around. And, finally, Terri does strike up a conversation -- and even a tentative friendship -- with Heather.
But these are relationships that seem better in concept than in execution. Sort of like Terri itself.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Marshall Fine