Dir Azazel Jacobs. US. 2011. 101mins


With his third feature film, indie director Azazel Jacobs (The GoodTimesKid, Momma’s Man) has created a beautifully subtle and wholly original take on the high-school-set coming-of-age film. While the slow-building delicate approach may alienate mainstream audiences expecting the old conventions of the genre, the film ultimately pays deeply affecting dividends in its final stretch.

As the film’s biggest star, Reilly provides glimpses of his familiar comic shtick, but his humorous presence is far more muted, and shrewdly so, than his Hollywood roles.

New US distributor ATO Pictures, which co-financed, will have to prepare viewers for Jacobs’s patient approach, but given careful handling and likely critical support, the film should find niche audiences in the US art-house market. Festivals and international TV, with an eye for art-films, will also likely embrace this distinctive picture. 

When we first meet Terri (newcomer Jacob Wysocki), a large chubby teenager, he’s naked in the bathtub – an iconic portrait of an adolescent outcast. He lives in a cluttered small house, seemingly isolated in the forest, with only his Uncle James (Creed Batton), an elderly man suffering from some debilitating illness that takes him in and out of awareness. Hounded and humiliated at school, Terri forms an unlikely friendship with the school principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who attempts to help the young man cope with life’s challenges.

If the set-up sounds potentially contrived, there’s little in the film that comes across as clichéd. Early offbeat details, such as Terri’s penchant for wearing pajamas to school, and a sequence in which he watches a hawk devour dead mice, immediately establishes the film as something different.

Terri’s relationship with Fitzgerald is also unique, holding both promise and disappointment. And the way Jacobs unhurriedly captures their conversations in the principle’s office makes these scenes fresh and unpredictable. Another fine sequence involves Terri passing notes with a newly befriended pretty girl; in keeping with the film’s restrained approach, their written exchanges become animated on the page, but Jacobs keeps the magical effect brief and simple.

As the film’s biggest star, Reilly provides glimpses of his familiar comic shtick (“Hey Terr Bear,” he quips), but his humorous presence is far more muted, and shrewdly so, than his Hollywood roles, and also balanced with a tinge of vulnerability that could have, in fact, been further developed. But the story is Terri’s, and newcomer Wysocki – who appears in just about every shot — ably embodies the character’s youthful confusion with an affable onscreen presence. Other supporting characters, such as an angry boy named Chad, are less compelling.

What also sets the film apart from the norm is cinematographer Tobias Datum’s gorgeous 35mm images. Terri’s walks back and forth from school along a picturesque wooded path provide a lyrical setting that helps take this small film to a larger, more transcendent place.

Production companies: ATO Pictures, Verisimilitude, Silverwood Films, Periscope Entertainment, Knowmore

International sales: Verisimilitude

Producers: Alison Dickey, Hunter Gray, Lynette Howell, Alex Orlovsky

Executive producers: Sarah Lash, Tyler Brodie, Cameron Brodie, Dawn Cullen Jonas, David Guy Levy, Jacob Pechenik, Jonathan Dorfman, Temple Fennell

Screenplay: Patrick deWitt

Cinematography: Tobias Datum

Production designer: Matthew Leum

Editor: Darrin Navarro

Music: Mandy Hoffman

Main cast: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Bridger Zadina