by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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Terri is the story of a young man, who is isolated from his classmates but who has a tender heart and caring spirit for his Uncle James, who suffers from dementia and with whom he lives. He doesn’t know his mother or father, and to add to his introverted demeanor is the fact that he is heavyset and the butt of constant jokes from his classmates.
From the producers of Blue Valentine and Half Nelson comes a sensitive story about a sensitive, plus-sized teenaged boy who is just trying to live his life as comfortably as he can. His comfort extends so far that he wears pajamas all the time, even to school, simply because he says they fit better.
Terri, played by newcomer Jacob Wysocki, is persistently late for class, because he has to tend after Uncle James, making beans over bread and giving him his medicine. As a result, he is ordered to see the assistant principal Fitzgerald, played by a cool, 60’s-talking John C. Reilly. The two forge a friendship cloaked in counseling sessions that brings young Terri out of his shell, while he also teaches Fitzgerald a thing or two.
Terri longs for friends at school, and one day comes to the defense of Heather, a promiscuous classmate who is being expelled because she and her boyfriend were making out in the home economics class. Terri implores Fitzgerald not to expel her, because she was not as willing as it seemed, and she and Terri also forge a friendship. This friendship is tested when she decides to come to Terri’s home and his only male friend, Chad, tries to sabotage the visit with liquor, pills and sex. After drinking and taking drugs, Heather is ripe for making out, but surprisingly not with Chad but with Terri. Terri feels awkward and doesn’t act on his emotions, and they all sleep it off.
Fitzgerald gets Terri to tag along when the school secretary finally dies from emphysema, as she coughs all through the movie. Chad begs to come along also, and they are the only three at the gravesite. Terri wears the obligatory black pajamas, and Fitzgerald wears his cool, black shades. And the two boys, while learning a thing or two about respect for the dead, use this experience as another rite of passage, in which the two said they had never participated.
Terri is a thoughtful movie that moves at a pace that lets the characters develop and brought Terri some sense of respect and pride for himself. Before he befriended Chad and Heather, his only comfort, other than taking care of his uncle, was found in trapping mice from his uncle’s attic, taking them to the woods and leaving them for the birds to devour. This was a routine with him that his uncle found odd, but that gave Terri some form of entertainment, as opposed to being viewed as a cruel act. The joy he feels when he sees the bird eat one of the mice is contagious.
This movie was a hit at the recent Sundance Film Festival, and while it may have a few elements of Precious, it is a far cry from the movie that garnered comedienne Monique an Oscar. Precious was, of course, about a heavyset Black teen girl. But she was abused by her mom and dad; and she was illiterate and became pregnant, as well as developed HIV. She, too, was at first shunned by classmates, and she, also, had caring teachers. But none of the darker themes are at work in Terri, which makes it a more delightful movie to watch.
Terri is playing in limited release throughout the Chicago area.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.
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