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Terri

Tales of a high school nothing.

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Two decades later, Heathers remains the gold standard for caustic high school satire. But an irritating whiff of condescension permeates its sappy epilogue, in which Winona Ryder's triumphant Veronica oh-so-magnanimously befriends universal object of ridicule Martha "Dumptruck," whose sole defining trait is that she's enormously fat. I remember thinking at the time that a truly subversive movie - one that really wanted to shock viewers out of their complacency - would make an unattractive outcast like Martha its protagonist, as opposed to just a means for the year's sex symbol to score some brownie points.

Well, hey, it only took 23 years. Directed by Azazel Jacobs (Momma's Man) from a screenplay by Patrick deWitt, Terri is in most respects an utterly conventional, even formulaic, high school movie, depicting a comically beleaguered teen's struggle for acceptance and quest for personal identity. Nothing different, except that Jacob Wysocki, the newcomer cast in the title role, doesn't look as if he just stepped off the cover of Tiger Beat. That single concession to reality, as it turns out, puts a gratifyingly fresh spin on even the most shopworn conventions.

So enormous that he has taken to dressing only in pajamas, even at school, Terri walks the halls in a deep funk, waiting for the inevitable moment when some kid will squeeze his man-tits while shouting "Ah-OOG-ah!" Home isn't much of a respite, either, because Terri's parents have left him in the care of an uncle (The Office's Creed Bratton, proving himself a genuine actor) who appears to be in the early stages of Alzheimer's.

Even when the school's genial doofus of a vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), offers Terri a few words of support and encouragement, they turn out to be stock phrases tossed at every problem kid who passes through his office. But what makes Terri special, on both a macro and a micro level, is the recognition that stock phrases can sometimes be sincere.

On paper, Jacobs seems a strange fit for this sort of material. The son of avant-garde legend Ken Jacobs, Aza (as he's known) was by all appearances a staunchly independent filmmaker with zero interest in crossing over to the mainstream; his previous features were so uncompromising, they were hardly seen. But the developing friendship between Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald is invested with so much unaffected candor and compassion, it transcends cliché.

Reilly, in particular, gives a heroically complex performance, transforming what initially looks like goofy shtick into a heart-rending portrait of flawed, flailing decency. Mr. Fitzgerald's story about Samantha, the temp in his office (which I wouldn't dream of spoiling for you), ranks among the most quietly powerful statements I've ever heard about what it means to be human, and it's made all the more poignant by Reilly's simple, matter-of-fact delivery.

Wysocki, for his part, doesn't strike me as a natural actor - he can be a tad stiff, with a deer-in-the-headlights passivity - but he's a striking presence in this context and manages to pull off Terri's more outré characteristics, such as a temporary obsession with feeding dead rats to the hawk that lives in a nearby forest. (Hmm, perhaps I exaggerate this movie's adherence to formula.)

A subplot involving Terri's chivalrous gesture toward a pretty blond student, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), which leads to her sudden sexual interest in him, largely fails to convince but is nonetheless forgivable, if only because Heather (or Veronica) would usually be the movie's lead. Indeed, I can't help but wonder if that name wasn't chosen in deliberate anti-homage ... although even Heather is treated with enormous compassion and respect. Terri insists on leaving no child behind.

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