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Thanks to a friend having a spare ticket I got to see the American indie Terri yesterday, which screened at Vue West as part of the 2011 BFI Film Festival. It also included a Q&A with director Azazel Jacobs and one of the producers, Lynette Howell (see below).

Year: 2011
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Screenplay: Patrick de Witt
Cast: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Bridger Zadina, Olivia Crocicchia, Creed Bratton.
Runtime: 105 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official websiteTerri

Available on iTunes and on DVD/BluRay.

The terrain of Terri is familiar, the treatment of the subject matter not so much: the film is set in an unnamed, small-town American high school and is about bullying without ever showing much of the bullying. The main character is Terri, played by Jacob Wysocki in his first feature film role, an obese teenager who has made a habit of going to school in his pyjamas because they feel “comfortable”. He is resigned to being the laughing stock for his immature classmates, responding to their teasing with a rather matter-of-factly “I get it. Thanks.”

At home Terri is the sole caretaker of his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who ails from some disease and alternates between states of lucidity and confusion. The whereabouts of his parents are unknown – it is a lonely life that Terri leads. One day Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the school’s assistant principal, takes an interest in him and, rather than reprimanding him for his constant tardiness, offers Terri malt balls and insists they meet every Monday morning. Terri does not quite know what to make of this, in part because Fitzgerald’s methods certainly do not follow school protocol: he shuts Terri up when talking about the bullying, eradicates student-teacher confidentiality with his loud shouting and tells lies as he sees fit.

During the weekly visits Terri forms an odd but endearing sort of friendship with the assistant principal. He also becomes acquainted with Chad (Bridger Zadina), one of the other students that Fitzgerald has taken on. Chad, a foulmouthed rebel with a nervous (and painful-to-watch) habit of plucking out his own hair, is physically the polar opposite of Terri: he is a small and scrawny teen boy who has only half-hit puberty (his mind goes into manic overdrive when too close to girls, but his body hasn’t quite followed suit yet). Internally however, Chad is just as lonesome and after a few words from the intrinsically kind Terri, he latches onto him like a stray dog that has been thrown a bit of food. The mismatched duo is soon joined by Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), a pretty, sexually precocious girl from Terri’s Home Economics class, who, through a regrettable incident, ends up an outsider as well.

Terri’s subject matter is serious and, although we learn details only about Terri’s situation and not of any of the other characters, it is obvious that the lives portrayed are sad, lonely, even broken. And yet, the film manages to be surprisingly funny and even hopeful. With a well-written script and physical-comedy-through-physical-disparity it draws out plenty of laughs, but never at the cost of its main characters. Azazel succeeds at giving us an original treatment of bullying, granting the victimisers very limited screen time as the much more intriguing lives of our misfits deservedly take up all of it.

Rated R, for some sexual content, language and an underage drinking session.

Rating: 8/10

Q&A Session with Azazel Jacobs and Lynette Howell

Please note: this is not a word-for-word transcript from the Q&A session, but I am paraphrasing what was said based on my memory. These were only some of the questions asked.

What inspired the story of the film? The film is based on a character study, of a character – of a teen walking around in pyjamas – created by Patrick DeWitt for a novel that he never ended up writing. Instead, the idea was developed into this film for which DeWitt wrote the screenplay.

What was it like to work with John C. Reilly? John C. Reilly was the most experienced person on the entire film set, but he was very open to my suggestions. It was interesting because opposite John C. Reilly we had Jacob Wysocki, who was doing his first feature film, but both actors were just as open to the film.

How did you get John C. Reilly to be part of this film? It was a long process of approaching him over several months. He had seen my film Momma’s Man and responded well to it. I had also known his wife for several years from the film festival circuit, so she also helped. At some point I just sort of assumed it would work out, although other people were telling me to have a ‘Plan B’ and a ‘Plan C’.

How did you go about the casting process? The casting process was started very early on, because of the challenge of finding an actor suitable (in age and size) for the role of Terri. We searched many schools and auditioned many teenagers, and at some point started bringing together the potential ‘Terri’s’, ‘Chad’s’ and ‘Heather’s’ to see how they played off each other. Towards the end of the casting process, Jacob Wysocki also spent a day with me  [the director], walking around in pyjamas in public, which he was perfectly comfortable with. It was his second audition only (the first one was for a TV show, which he also got). All other teen actors had previous experience in film, Bridger Zadina (Chad) was a thoroughly trained child actor for example.

Why a character wearing pyjamas?  This was Patrick DeWitt’s character, but for myself I was also interested working with a character who is already comfortable with doing something like that: I wanted to start the film from a point where he had already settled into wearing pyjamas, not before.