Terri: Sundance Review

Its charms feel somewhat calculated, but this reflective tale of outsider solitude has enough humor and poignancy to win admirers.

Nobody watching the supposed social rejects of the school halls congregate and rejoice on "Glee" is likely to confuse that fantasy with reality, especially since half of them are hot cheerleaders and handsome jocks. But the misfits drawn together in "Terri" might strike a few chords.

After making a splash in Park City with Momma's Man in 2008, Azazel Jacobs returns with a fresh example of a quintessential Sundance staple -- from the familiar focus on marginalized figures to the vaguely lyrical tone, punctuated by moments of darkness and bruising truth. Yet while we've been down this lonely, funny-sad path before, the soulfulness of writer Patrick deWitt's characters keeps them interesting.

The opening shot unequivocally shows how far the title character strays from the rigid template of high-school acceptability, unveiling obese Terri (Jacob Wysocki) in the bath. For reasons not divulged, he has been abandoned by his parents and lives on the wooded outskirts of an unidentified small town with his Uncle James (a touching Creed Bratton). A bookish granola type suffering from what appears to be Alzheimer's, James' windows of lucidity have grown increasingly infrequent.

The film tends to leave background details for the audience to fill in, which is elegant, if slightly mannered. And de Witt's screenplay is stronger on dialogue than emotional development.

From the tender forbearance with which Terri treats his uncle, we observe that he's kind-hearted. And from the fact that he wears pajamas to school for comfort, we gather he has absorbed enough cruel taunts to be numb to them.

When his chronic tardiness and decreased participation in class bring him to the attention of assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), Terri finds an unexpected friend.

Much of the film's core comedy comes via the interplay between these two characters. Reilly brings all his rough-hewn appeal and crooked humor to a man who still finds value in his role as an educator, shepherding his problem students with understanding reassurances, mock severity and cultivated cool.

The simple fact that Mr. Fitzgerald cares makes him a fellow oddball. Terri's hesitant friendships with two other school pariahs further feed the character's growth. One is Chad (Bridger Zadina), a detention regular due to his abrasive behavior; the other is Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), a pretty blonde ostracized after sexually surrendering to the class horndog (Justin Prentice) during home economics.

In a well-judged scene that represents the amorphous beginnings of Terri's coming of age, the insecurities of all three outcasts are fueled one evening by whiskey and a handful of Uncle James' pills.

Jacobs coaxes unselfconscious performances laced with both irony and pathos from his young cast. As the unguarded gentle giant, Wysocki, in particular, suggests a bustling inner life, his blank canvas masking layer upon layer of hurt.

It's not the most substantial movie and its delicate approach can seem rather studied, almost as if the director is trying on a style rather than adopting one that's an ideal fit. But there are many lovely, lingering moments. Tobias Datum shoots the leafy exteriors in soft natural light that enhances the melancholy mood.

If the lighter scenes sometimes lean toward sitcom cuteness, Jacobs has a sufficiently deft touch to get away with it. The territory often seems closest to that of NBC's unjustly short-lived Freaks and Geeks, which is by no means a bad place to be.

Production: Verisimilitude in association with Silverwood Films, Periscope Entertainment
Screenwriter: Patrick deWitt
Producers: Alison Dickey, Hunter Gray, Lynette Howell, Alex Orlovsky
Executive producers: Cameron Brodie, Tyler Brodie, Dawn Cullen Jonas, David Guy Levy, Jacob Pechenik, Johnathan Dorfman, Temple Fennell, Sarah Lash
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Matthew Luem
Music: Mandy Hoffman
Costume designer: Diaz
Editor: Darrin Navarro
Sales: Silverwood Films
No rating, 101 minutes