In the all-embracing Terri, the high-school movie's perennial wallflower takes the spotlight 

Tales of a High School Nothing

Tales of a High School Nothing

Two decades later, Heathers remains the gold standard for caustic high school satire. But there's always been an irritating whiff of condescension permeating 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 Dumptruck its protagonist, as opposed to just a means for this year's sex symbol to score some brownie points. Merely acknowledging such a character's conflicted humanity would qualify as courageous.

Well, hey, it only took 22 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 you haven't seen umpteen times before, except that Jacob Wysocki, the newcomer cast in the title role, doesn't look as if he's stepped off the cover of Tiger Beat. As it turns out, though, that single concession to reality can put a gratifyingly fresh spin on even the most shopworn conventions.

So enormous that he's 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, as 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 micro level, is its 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 that they were barely seen. But while the developing friendship between Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald would fit comfortably in an after-school special, it's invested with so much unaffected candor and compassion that it transcends cliché. Reilly, in particular, gives a heroically complex performance, transforming what initially looks like goofy shtick into a heartrending 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 about what it means to be human I've ever seen, 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 who 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.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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