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It Doesn't Get Better 

This tale of a high school outcast is quietly powerful, if not transformative.

click to enlarge A universal theme: High school sucks.
  • A universal theme: High school sucks.

Stories about high school misfits form a substantial, if commonplace, subgenre of indie film dramas. Just by standing out from the pack, Azazel Jacobs’ Terri is already marked with distinction.

Jacobs’ style is observational, and there’s actually more watchfulness than storytelling going on in this film. His well-cast characters are unpredictable, and they’re given plenty of room to meander through the social mess that is the American high school. Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is a morbidly obese teen who wears loose-fitting pajamas to school — a sign of rebellious distinction, as well as an indicator that he has given up trying to find his place within the social strata.

This outsider lives on the edge of some woods in California with his addled uncle (Terri’s parents are unexplainedly absent). Taunts from the other teens cause Terri to dread going to school, and he is habitually late for homeroom. Lately, his grades have slipped, and that brings him to the attention of Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the assistant principal.

Reilly, the MVP of character actors, delivers a superlative, full-hearted performance as the well-meaning but generally clueless administrator who establishes weekly counseling sessions with Terri. It’s a role that could have been easily played for laughs, but Reilly manages to make us believe in the character’s good intentions despite Mr. Fitzgerald’s inability to come up with any advice more constructive than “Life’s a mess, and we all just try to do the best we can.” Lobbing a malted milk ball at his advisee is his solution to all of life’s unanswerables.

Terri responds positively to Mr. Fitzgerald’s attention until he realizes that, rather than being unique, he forms part of a subset of school misfits that the assistant principal regularly counsels.

Wysocki’s Terri verges between wary and trustful. He’s impatient but gentle with his uncle, yet he demonstrates a creepy interest in the dead mice that are caught in their attic traps. Terri has a kind of lumbering grace that’s intriguing to watch yet ultimately unknowable.

That’s both the originality and the frustration of this movie. Its observations (given a great assist by Tobias Datum’s cinematography) are acutely attuned to various details of Terri’s life, but they also leave out broad swaths of information.

As he showed in his last feature, Momma’s Man, Jacobs has an affinity for stories about young men searching for their identities. Terri never finds any big answers — and it’s not even clear that he knows what the questions are — but watching him do the best he can becomes a languid study in teenage perseverance.

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