Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Terri: A decent character piece that never quite let me in

Terri, C

by Brandon Isaacson

From the description at Sundance 2011 (where the film appeared in competition):

Director Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man) returns to the Sundance Film Festival with a tale that will speak to anyone who has ever felt insecure or misunderstood. In other words . . . everyone.
Orphaned to an uncle who is ailing, mercilessly teased by his peers, and roundly ignored by his jaded teachers, Terri finds himself alienated and alone. But when the dreaded vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald, sees a bit of himself in the boy, they establish a friendship that encourages Terri to consider the possibility that life is something to be shared, even enjoyed, not just endured. 

I found myself very disappointed with Terri. While it definitely had a few powerful visuals, I found myself disconnected from the characters and thus unaffected by the story.

I saw this film at IFF Boston, where director Azazel Jacobs called the film a fable. He explained that he wanted the story to be a bit removed from reality. While I can see the value that may come from this (and perhaps does in small doses), it ultimately hurt my experience. This style made the viewing experience voyeuristic, so I was too far away from the characters to see myself in them. In addition, many of the characters fall into caricatures, like the douchebag Phys Ed. teacher, the lonely high school girl who uses her sexuality to feel wanted, or our lead character: the weird fat kid who’s an outcast because of his problems at home. In general there’s nothing wrong with these character types, it’s just that they don’t bring enough complexity to their situations.
The only interesting details of the film, like Terri’s habit (if not fetish) of killing mice, fade away and never really come back in any satisfying way. This feeds into a main issue of the film: its lack of focus. It’s hard to figure out what were the really important relationships or moments. Jacobs is not able to find the delicate balance between comedy and drama, with a perfect counterpoint being last summer’s John C. Reilly dramedy Cyrus.  In Cyrus, the Duplass brothers effectively let the two genres inform one another, instead of competing. In Terri, I found myself unsure when I was supposed to be laughing or crying.

All of that aside, I can’t get the image of Terri meandering through the woods out of my head. I’m also quite taken by Mandy Hoffman’s score, which is the most coherent aspect of the film. It haunted me throughout, drilling Terri’s despondency and isolation into my heart.

Terri really isn’t very good, but it’s also definitely not bad. If you’re interested in a slow, yet sometimes beautiful character piece, this might be the film for you.

You can reach me at @BrandonIsaacson , Mubi, bostonianonfilm@gmail.com, or Facebook.