Superficially, opening Terri on the same weekend as the final Harry Potter movie seems like adding insult to insult, since the life of this new parent-deprived teenage boy is resolutely devoid of magic. Terri Thompson (Jacob Wysocki) lives with an uncle succumbing to dementia, he is unmistakably fat, and he's so bullied and embarrassed about his weight that he has begun attending school in his pajamas, as if throwing himself the only slumber party he'd get invited to. Yet there are ways in which Terri very strongly suggests a fairy tale of a perverse kind. The hero, in a heartbreakingly pitiless self-appraisal, calls himself a "monster." His homework is reading Gulliver's Travels, and the parallel he sees in the story of a trussed giant is clear. He walks to homeroom each morning through a sun-dappled forest, whoops ecstatic at the sight of a bird, and stops each morning at the chain-link fence bordering school grounds, like a hexed creature preparing to be prodded and tormented by villagers.
Maybe you recognize the feeling: the uniquely hollow knowledge that you're constitutionally incapable of facing social interactions most people breeze through without a second thought. Nothing cures that, but Terri offers a balm, by knowing its characters' weaknesses as well as they do themselves, but treating them far more generously. Director Azazel Jacobs (Momma's Man) and writer Patrick deWitt—yes, the Portland novelist Patrick deWitt, the one who hung out at Liberty Glass and just published The Sisters Brothers—have pinpointed how the very admission of your weaknesses feels shameful, a body blow to your pride. In the movie's most exquisitely biting sequence, Terri realizes that his weekly counseling sessions place him in the school's lowest caste—a montage of misshapen frames and untouchable personalities. "I guess I just wish I didn't need help, you know?" says Terri to his principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly). Mr. Fitzgerald knows. He gives Terri a malted milk ball.
So, yes, Terri is a therapy movie. But it is also a radical inversion of the John Hughes formula—in which all the outcasts are secretly conformists-in-waiting—and a proof that elegant '70s exploration of outsider lives can flourish in contemporary small-budget cinema, complete with golden cinematography and silvery score. But without the macho posturing: Jacobs and deWitt's work is in the Bob Rafelson tradition, minus a swaggering Jack Nicholson. Instead, there is a performance of fearless tenderness from Wysocki; behind a wary shield, his eyes and smile betray a capacity, along with gratitude for any kindness. Reilly matches him by finally dropping his recent pose as an Emmett Kelly clown without greasepaint, and returning to his roots as an actor who can make ordinariness seem magnetic. Their conversations are wondrous little exchanges of truth—as is the movie's queasy set piece, a whiskey-and-pill-fueled truth-or-dare contest between Terri and two equally shunned classmates, one of whom (Olivia Crocicchia) is terribly pretty. The game escalates to an ultimate truth: There are worse things than being rejected and lonely.
Acceptance is not a virtue displayed to its best advantage in the movies, which exist, after all, as a fantasy factory. In a decade of reviewing, I can recall only one scene that conveyed a mood of letting go—the penultimate shot of Paul Giamatti in Sideways, opening his treasured bottle of pinot noir at a fast-food table. Terri's final sequence is an equal, and also features burgers: After Terri's traumatic experiment, he and Mr. Fitzgerald break into school grounds on a Saturday, grill up lunch, and have one more discussion—a chat all the more consoling because it attempts no answers. Math tests have answers. Life has pain, and walks in the woods, and sometimes burgers. Terri suggests that—to coin a phrase—it doesn't get better, at least not right away, and maybe you can find peace within the way it is.
88 SEE IT: <i>Terri</i> is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.