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Saving 'Terri'; Slice-of-life indie film has a big heart

"A monster" in the world is what Terri thinks he is.

He isn't. He's just a very tall and very blubbery 15-year-old who lives with an acerbic uncle who has Alzheimer's and seems incapable of saying a kind word.

Terri is not quite "morbidly obese" to use the clinical phrase, but he looks as if he might be well on the way.

So he goes to school in his pajamas -- just in case there was a living soul in the place who didn't already think he was a miserable misfit. And late. Always late. But then who would be in a hurry to get to a place where you're certain to be teased, at the very least, and possibly abused?

And then, finally, a small high school miracle happens to Terri. He's sent to the assistant principal's office. And, incredibly, that assistant principal turns out to be a man of genuine sensitivity to the individual natures of each problem kid who turns up in his office.

He's more than a "good man," he's a high school savior of sorts.

To the brats and incorrigibles, he's an ill-tempered abusive scourge. And to the lost freaks and good kids like Terri, he's the adult who just might give them some safe emotional passage into an adulthood of their own.

"Terri" is a very quiet and very good indie film about misfit teens and high school -- a sort of low-budget, on-the-fly improv on "Breakfast Club" themes with icky string and tinkling piano music (the worst part of the film, by far).

Jacob Wysocki plays Terri, a kid with a heart as big as his frame if he can only find people to see it and know it. And he does, beginning with Mr. Fitzgerald, played by that great lumpy everyman of movies, John C. Reilly.

After him, there's an even more screwed-up kid named Chad (Bridger Zadina) who picks his hair out, curses at teachers in class and has the mysterious (virtually unexplained) despair that envelops some kids from childhood. Into their little circle of major maladjustment flows Heather Miles (Olivia Croicicchia) who is pressured into a decidedly unwise third-base indiscretion right in the middle of home economics class by a boy whose nickname is "Dirty Jack" (not for nothing).

Terri knows what happened to Heather in that class. He saw it all. He can't save her reputation, but he saves her from getting kicked out and becomes her friend.

Lurching teenage misbehavior ensues. And life-enhancing friendships that no one really saw coming.

I wish the musical score hadn't been so egregiously "sensitive indie film" tinkling piano syrup, but this is a quiet, sensitive little movie about the most tender parts of unhappy people.

A little more effort might have been made to explain a lot more -- especially about Mr. Fitzgerald, who is really, when you think about it, vastly more interesting in every way than all the freaks, geeks and problem children who come his way.

All we get, really, is a slice-of-life here. But you're never in any doubt that this really is the fantasy version of "life" you're watching, and not exploitive garbage meant to sell tons of tickets and something that really isn't anything like "life" at all.




3 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: John C. Reilly, Jacob Wysocki and Olivia Crocicchia    

DIRECTOR: Azazel Jacobs     RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes    

RATING: R for sexual content, language and some drug and alcohol use, all involving teens.    

THE LOWDOWN: An overweight teen misfit is helped by his equally troubled classmates and an assistant principal.

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