Please Note: The images used here are promotional stills and are not taken from the Blu-ray edition under review.
The description of a film's protagonist as a "quirky outsider" in the copywriting on the back cover of a Blu-ray does not inspire much confidence. "Quirky" is one of those overused, landmine terms, like "different" or "weird," that implies a certain complacent, status-quo density at best, presumptuously normative condescension at worst. "Different" than what? "Quirky" compared to whom? Will the characters suffer from a surfeit of contrived, patronizing, sub-Harold and Maude "quirks" (à la the god-awful Gigantic)? Will outsiderdom be romanticized and fetishized as some kind of hip fashion/lifestyle choice (as in The Breakfast Club, if you'll forgive my saying so)? Thankfully, Azazel Jacobs's (Momma's Man) delightfully unassuming, genuinely bittersweet Terri gives the lie to the lazy description offered by its distributor; there is very little goofy, kooky quirkiness here. Terri is instead a thoughtful, compassionate, open-eyed and open-minded, affectionately comical look at a kid that, though he may be an "outsider," is also a human being who, by simply being his own unaffected self, happens to fall outside those arbitrary norms by which things are often cruelly measured through unthinking default, especially in high school, which is the particular, mundanely oppressive circle of hell in which Terri (the very talented Jacob Wysocki) finds himself.
The story of Terri is told in an exceptionally laid-back, matter-of-fact way, with no earth-shattering moments of crisis, just slowly surfacing indicators of underlying emotional pain, tension, and doubt. Terri is an obese, somewhat shy young man who lives with his ailing, often medication-addled Uncle James (Creed Bratton, The Office) and wears pajamas to school simply because he finds they more comfortably accommodate his girth. Some of the kids are cruel to Terri, but most are just indifferent, and the feeling is mutual; this is decidedly not the kind of film that whips up drama out of the blatant victimization of the protagonist. Instead, it focuses on the troubled, tenuous relationships in Terri's life: with his loving but cantankerous and out-of-it uncle; with his assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (a sweet and hilarious John C. Reilly, Carnage), who takes a special interest in Terri that the latter is unsure whether to consider a gift or an insult; with Chad (Bridger Zadina), a truly problematic youngster who is another of Mr. Fitzgerald's special cases (hence Terri's dubiousness about being lumped in with that group); and with his classmate Heather (Olivia Crocicchia, Rescue Me), whose sexually unfettered behavior has gotten her branded the school slut and almost expelled, and toward whom Terri develops a combination of interventional concern and awestruck crush. Mr. Fitzgerald inadvertently compromises and makes mistakes all along the way as he tries to help Terri, and what we learn about his muddled life makes us aware that he may not be capable of offering Terri, or himself, any kind of heroic rescue, in much the same way that Terri is too flawed and hesitant to be a bona fide savior for Heather (let alone Chad, whom we cannot be certain will ever outgrow his childish acting out).
The development of these relationships is chronicled by Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick DeWitt (with whom the director also developed the story) with an impressive degree of subtlety and insight. Nothing about Terri ever feels trumped-up or imposed; I almost hate to use the banal descriptor, but "organic" really does apply to the approach that Jacobs and DeWitt hold themselves to with such rigor (an impression aided by Tobias Datum's cinematography and its unobtrusive, unharried, but visually very pleasing style, and by Mandy Hoffman's sad-piano-melody, Jon Brion-esque musical score). Terri lets the situations, conflicts, and mutual understandings among its characters play out in a way that reminds us that for Terri and company, there will be no movie-like breakthrough or moment of cementing certainty that things will become ideal for any of them. But Jacobs's camera-gaze is so accepting and compassionate, the performances (particularly Wysocki's) so rich with flawed, faltering, recognizable humanity, that the film is ultimately extremely hopeful in its honest ambivalence. A lack of final-closure happy endings and the probable impossibility of rapports unsullied by misunderstandings and lapses in judgment does not mean--at least according to this emotionally mature, generous, quietly sublime gem of a movie--that we should let the inherent imperfections of our connections to others keep us from trying, falling down, getting back up, and trying again, ad infinitum, never considering it a viable option to neglect or give up on one another.
The disc's AVC/MPEG-4-encoded, 1080p-mastered, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio) transfer is wonderful. The film has a visual aesthetic that is modest and delicate--all sunlight and shading to evoke its unspecified SoCal small-town environment--and cinematographer Tobias Datum's visual warmth comes through at every moment, without any instances of instability, flaws, or insufficiencies in the image, even in the most subtly lit scenes.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also flawless. Every sound, from dialogue to nighttime crickets to the nicely integrated and balanced score, arrives through your speakers distortion-free and multidimensionally rich.
--Eight minutes of deleted scenes that, funny and well-acted as they are, were clearly (and correctly) omitted because they would have robbed the film of some of its invaluable subtlety by narrowing down the characters and their motivations for us through being a bit too expository and/or on-the-nose.
--"A Look Inside Terri," a 10-minute making-of that is mainly an interview with director Azazel Jacobs, with a few interspersed comments from actor Jacob Wysocki and some footage from the shoot cut in. A fairly slight but honest-enough account of Jacobs's thinking on and approaches to fine-tuning the aesthetics, the drama, the characters, and the emotions of his remarkable film.
Creating a very gentle, modest, down-to-earth world where the complexity of human needs and relationships obviates the possibility of (or need for) heroes, villains, or easy answers or categorizations, Terri lets us tag along for a while, always moving and engaging us (and often making us laugh), in the existence of a young person who does not experience his life or his feelings as "quirky" or simplistically describable in any way, but just faces them--sometimes reluctantly, sometimes through external pressure or immediate necessity--as they are. Director Azazel Jacobs has a great, open-hearted, nonjudgmental gift, one also intermittently possessed by Freaks and Geeks-era Judd Apatow, Mike White (Year of the Dog), and Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Cedar Rapids): the ability to appear to just find the drama in his characters and their stories, rather than instigating or imposing it. In his vision, there is no black or white, no guarantees or resolutions; but for him, gray has a million beautiful, distinctive shades, and with his uniquely moving mix of humane respect and observant awareness, he's capable of showing us and letting us appreciate each one. Highly Recommended.