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Movie Review: Terri Catches the Horror of High School, Without Vampires

John C. Reilly with Jacob Wysocki, center, and Bridger Zadina.

In an era of supernatural movie teens — glittery vampires and hunky werewolves leading dangerous romantic lives — the film Terri stands out for reminding us of the clumsy everyday horrors of high school. Compared to Twilight, the stakes appear small. But it’s a movie about survival nonetheless.

Terri is an odd, hopeless, and fat 15-year-old who’s basically given up. Jacob Wysocki, the hefty star of TV’s Huge, plays Terri with dead-eyed equanimity, lumbering through classrooms as if they’re stations of the cross. Terri is so uninspired he wears his PJs to school, and the other kids mock him for that, as well as his man boobs. But Terri’s hopelessness is hard-earned: Years ago, his parents left him, so now he lives with his uncle (The Office’s surprisingly subtle Creed Bratton), whose brain is riddled with Alzheimer’s and who now depends on Terri for his care. So it seems like Terri could go on going nowhere forever.

Then Terri gets called into the counselor’s office and becomes one of his special cases — “monsters,” as Terri calls them. But the counselor, Mr. Fitzgerald (played by John C. Reilly), is hardly Lady Gaga in the nerd-uplift department. Instead, he’s a well-meaning doofus with a grab bag of canned, clumsy observations like “Life’s a mess, dude.” And soon enough it becomes even more so.

Terri develops a crush on a cute girl named Heather (Rescue Me’s Olivia Crocicchia); he stares at her in home ec until one day, Terri and the rest of his class see Heather get fingered under the desk by her boyfriend, the aptly nicknamed Dirty Zack. Afterwards, Dirty Zach asks Terri to smell his finger. What happens next is a classic high-school humiliation.

By the start of the next period, Heather’s reputation is ruined, and she’s a monster, much like Terri. The two become odd friends with another monster, Chad, a scrawny neurotic who’s in the middle stages of nervously picking his hair.

But don’t look for them to band together against the evil popular kids. This is no fairy tale. Azazel Jacobs’s last film, Momma’s Man, about a married man who escapes to his parents' downtown loft, was well observed but almost claustrophobic in its narrow-banded tone and hermetic setting. Here, he opens up and lets some air in, for a film that feels more expansive, funnier, and angrier — but every bit as honest.

The next thing you know, Chad, Heather, and Terri are all at Terri’s place, popping Uncle James’s pills, drinking scotch, and pushing each other’s boundaries in an epic pile-up of poorly thought out yet believable decisions. Their faltering bacchanal plays like a harsher take on The Breakfast Club: Instead of a Jock, Princess, and Brain, defined and protected by their respective cliques, Terri, Chad, and Heather are each painfully and very believably alone — Fatso, Spaz, Slut.

The film is too deliberately paced at times, and the spotty score is a poor match, but this last scene is dead-on: Jacobs has laid the groundwork so well that he doesn’t need to resort to Kids-style depravity to show how desperate and risky their little games have become, or how very easy it is for them to make awful decisions. For Terri, it might get better, as Dan Savage says. Or it might not. Every day of high school is still going to feel like the end of the world, vampire war or not. At least Terri has learned that he’s not alone in his exile — that he’s not the crazy one. Maybe, for some kid somewhere, this film will do the same thing.

Photo: 20th Century Fox