There is perhaps no more fertile storytelling ground than high school. Countless movies have mined the depths of awkward despair to which interesting, offbeat teens descend during those trying years. One could program an entire satellite Sundance Film Festival comprised entirely of offbeat, whimsical films centered on secondary school dysfunction that have premiered in Park City.

So, it’s reasonable to wonder whether there’s anything left to say, and why Azazel Jacobs – director of the acclaimed, innovative Momma’s Man and son of avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs – turned to the proverbial setting for his new film Terri.

Maybe it took a filmmaker with Jacobs’ unconventional pedigree to make it happen, but here – finally – is an American indie set in high school that stands apart from its predecessors by going somewhere new. With a sensitive spirit, bolstered by screenwriter Patrick Dewitt’s insightful writing and a unique protagonist bestowed with a proud, unshakable spirit, the movie abandons snarky black comedy for deeper existential truths.

The picture is centered on 15-year-old Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an overweight, lonely teen who spends his days being mercilessly ribbed at school and his nights caring for his ailing guardian Uncle James (Creed Bratton). Terri has given up hope for something better, surrendered to the unshakable reality that he, in his words, is “a monster.” Yet bombastic, similarly lonely vice-principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) takes an unexpected interest in the sad student and a mutual self-esteem boosting friendship begins to form.

The filmmakers respect Terri, concentrating much of the drama on the ways his essential kindness impacts the troubled personalities that surround him. The pajama-wearing, overweight, worn-down teen is, in many respects, the most mature and thoughtful figure in the movie, a radical gesture given the high school movie’s usual tack of snidely condescending to characters that don’t fit standard beauty conventions.

Wysocki, making his feature film debut, is a major discovery, imbuing Terri with manifold complex qualities and courage to be the person he wants to be, no matter what the bullies have to say. He and Reilly affect a convincing teacher-student bond, at times dialed up and manic and at others almost impossibly sweet, centered on a shared understanding of life’s imperfection and the degree to which petty bullshit defines the high school experience.

Jacobs advances in a big way here, bringing Terri a sharply conceived, deeply-felt visual sensibility which shows that he need not sacrifice his pervading interests when working with movie stars and bigger budgets. The filmmaker blends the restrictive, intimate nature of the home, filled with the detritus of an older era, shared by Terri and James with liberating long shots of the characters framed against railroad tracks, tall grasses and picturesque streets of their California hometown. Similarly, Jacobs ably intersperses moments of cutting, ribald humor with a deep-rooted affection for the misfits at the core of the story, all tied together by his understated willingness to let us learn from them.

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