Lest you think that you’ve already seen every possible variation on the outsider-nerd story, “Terri” keeps plenty of surprises up its pit-stained sleeves.
Terri Thompson (Jacob Wysocki) has it tough — he’s an awkward, overweight high-school outsider (and wearing pajamas to class every day isn’t making him any less of a pariah) who’s saddled with taking care of his mentally ill uncle (Creed Bratton of “The Office”).
Affable principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) tells Terri that the weekly meetings they’re going to be having are special perks for “good-hearted” students, but Terri soon figures out — based on who else gets these meetings — that “good-hearted” is just the latest synonym for “special.”
Fortunately, director Azazel Jacobs — whose thoroughly unsentimental manchild comedy “Momma’s Man” makes him the anti-Apatow — isn’t out to score cheap laughs or tears from his ungainly hero. Nor does he let Reilly walk away with the movie, even though several early scenes showcase Reilly’s hung-dog Everyman, using different ranges of his voice when he’s being the Tough Disciplinarian or the Authoritative Best Pal.
Most of the film centers around Terri himself, blossoming from awkward loner — he spends much of his time at home dispensing pills to his uncle and making baked beans on toast — to someone who, while still awkward, can manage to hold up his own end of a conversation. His time with the principal helps in that regard, of course, but so do his friendships with a troubled, trouble-making kid (Bridger Zadina) and with Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), a pretty girl who gets a bad reputation after one brazen incident.
The incident in question involves manipulation (of both the mental and digital kind) by her boyfriend in the middle of Home Ec, and while it’s Terri who first notices it — which makes other students follow suit — it’s also his later testimony to Fitzgerald that keeps Heather from being expelled. And when other students shun Heather, it’s Terri who, in his own goofy way, reaches out to her.
The Terri/Heather relationship could have taken a million awful paths in the hands of a less competent filmmaker — Jacobs collaborated on Patrick Dewitt’s witty, understated script — but it all rings true. (Her explanation of the Home Ec encounter boils down to, “Sometimes it’s nice to be wanted.”) And the fact that “Terri” doesn’t have the Hollywood oomph of weird-kid-makes-good movies scores in its favor.
Newcomer Wysocki’s performance goes a great way toward keeping the film from getting too soppy — he doesn’t shy away from making Terri a kid most people would avoid in the halls, and he resists the temptation to “fix” the character in any way by the end of the movie. By not making this guy traditionally “lovable,” Wysocki makes us root for him anyway.
If you like your tales of adolescence without wise-beyond-their-years dialogue, precious art direction, and a soundtrack of songs constantly telling you what you’re supposed to be feeling, you may find that “Terri” is a treasure.