Earlier in John C. Reilly’s career, the very idea of him playing an assistant principal would have signaled a focus on deflated ambition and sad-sack demeanor. But following his welcome detour into broad comedy like Step Brothers and Walk Hard, Reilly has returned to indies with a surprising, funny bravado. In Cedar Rapids, Cyrus, and now in Terri, he’s playing guys who struggle valiantly in an uncaring world, less hapless than, say, Reed Rothchild.
Reilly’s Mr. Fitzgerald is a well-meaning adult who reaches out to Terri (Jacob Wysocki), a taciturn, withdrawn kid carrying more than a few extra pounds. He’s called into Fitzgerald’s office, not for outright disruption, but for what Fitzgerald sees as troubling signs: being chronically late, getting worse grades than before, and wearing old-man pajamas to school. But Terri isn’t trying to make a defiant statement. He’s just feeling worn down. The pajamas are comfortable, and missing a few hours of school mostly means skipping some extra teasing from his classmates.
The movie, sensitively directed by Azazel Jacobs, opens with glimpses of Terri’s home life. At first, his surroundings appear budget-gothic: he lives in a small, rundown house surrounded by woods, with his erratic Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who appears to be in the midst of transition from caretaking to needing care: he has moments of lucidity followed by drifts into mental fog. Whether Uncle James’ medication combats or causes this haziness is left hazy by the screenplay. In any case, he regards his nephew with absent-minded affection and a little gruffness.
This leaves Terri mostly on his own, a point made early on when Uncle James instructs him to rid the attic of mice. After reluctantly setting half a dozen traps, the boy lays in bed, awake, listening to them snap and thump. The next day, he leaves the dead animals in the forest for a hawk to devour. As creepy as this sequence may be, Terri isn’t another instance of indie miserabilism, Terri is more isolated than damaged.
Sensing this, Mr. Fitzgerald arranges regular conferences with him, when he tries to open him up and gives him pep talks. Wysocki has the soft eyes, sweet face, and round neck of a sadder, quieter Chris Farley, and his scenes with Reilly, who brims over with dorky confidence, are off-kilter, yet believable delights. Neither Terri nor Fitzgerald is artificially wise or adept. Mr. Fitzgerald isn’t an inspirational teacher or quirky mentor. Instead, Patrick de Witt’s screenplay focuses on Fitzgerald’s sincere desire to help Terri, who is taken aback when he realizes some of his new friend’s personal anecdotes and casual chit-chit are genuine.
Terri’s changing sense of the world leads to tentative bonds with other outcast students, like the antic Chad (Bridger Zadina), who visits Fitzgerald’s office for more traditional disciplinary reasons, and Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), the object of sexual gossip. Again, Jacobs and de Witt avoid high school movie clichés, as the teens fumble through imperfect, sometimes awkward bonding.
These real-life rhythms lead to some anti-narrative ambling, which occasionally feels a little affected. We never learn what happened to Terri’s parents or how he came to live with his uncle, even when it would make sense for any number of characters to inquire about it further (Chad, in particular, seems too easily swayed from pressing him for more information). But even as the movie wanders, its low-key observations are engaging. Unlike, say, Angus, the likable 1995 comedy about an overweight kid that nonetheless indulged in its share of slick wish fulfillment, Terri doesn’t treat its character’s girth as a gimmick. It’s just another condition separating him from so many of his peers. The film can’t promise that it’ll get better, but it leads us to hope it will.
Given that subtle optimism, casting Reilly as an authority figure carries an extra subtext. Once he was the jilted husband of Chicago and the dimwitted sidekick of Boogie Nights. Now, even if Mr. Fitzgerald isn’t a world-beater, he gets by admirably: he works hard, he does his best, and he even seems able to cope with some off-screen marital problems. He seems to like his life. At some point, Terri may get there, too.