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John C. Reilly lays down the law in Terri 

For the title character, growing up is hardly worth the effort

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Lately I find myself pulling away from the keyboard whenever I start to type coming-of-age movie. Should movies about adolescence really be treated as a genre, like boxing movies or dance movies or swashbucklers? The term presupposes that coming of age is a good thing, and for people still grinding through adolescence it must seem smug and dismissive, yet another irksome admonition to put away childish things. Terri, the eccentric fourth feature of New York independent Azazel Jacobs, will almost certainly endure this lazy critical shorthand, yet no one checking it out this weekend should expect Dead Poets Society. The story of a giant obese kid (newcomer Jacob Wysocki) and his friendship with a misfit vice principal (John C. Reilly) at his junior high, Terri is so ambiguous on the value of maturity that you may feel compelled to climb back into the womb.

Jacobs must have "come of age" at some point—he was born in 1972—but his recent films demonstrate a fascination with childhood. One wonders if this might be a reaction to his having been exposed so early to the creative world of adults: his father is the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs (Star Spangled to Death), who established the cinema department at Binghamton University, and according to the Terri website, Azazel was "raised in lower Manhattan surrounded by important and innovative artists." Ken Jacobs has collaborated with his wife, Florence, as well as Azazel and his sister, Nisi, both of whom have taken up the family profession. After finishing a master's degree at the American Film Institute, Azazel released Nobody Needs to Know (2003), a meandering metafiction about actresses auditioning for a movie, then followed it with The GoodTimesKid (2005), a droll screwball comedy about an army induction letter that pulls a stranger into the lives of an angry punk rocker (played by Jacobs) and his funny, impetuous girlfriend (Sara Diaz).

When Jacobs set out to make Momma's Man (2008), the story of a new father who freaks out and begins regressing into his teenage years, he added a bold autobiographical streak by setting most of the film inside the Brooklyn loft where his parents lived and casting Flo and Ken Jacobs as the protagonist's mother and dad. Mikey (Matt Boren) has come to New York City to visit his folks, and when the time comes for him to return to his wife and baby in Los Angeles, he can't get himself to go to the airport. Instead he makes up one story after another for his parents and retreats to his childhood room, where he tries on a little Captain Marvel cape he's found tucked away, lounges on his bed reading comic books, bangs out his old punk-rock numbers on a beat-up acoustic guitar, and ponders a dog-eared letter he wrote but never sent to his high school girlfriend. Sitting on a bench by the bay, he's approached by some kids who ask him to buy them beer, and he's visibly hurt and angry when they don't ask him to join them. Before long Mikey begins to suffer from agoraphobia and can't put one foot in front of the other to go downstairs and outside.

Given the warm embrace of the Jacobs loft, you understand why he might not want to leave: it's a hermetically sealed world, an artistic hamster cage jammed with books, artwork, and film equipment. At one point the three characters gather together to watch an abstract projection from one of the magic lantern devices Ken and Flo Jacobs have created (they brought their show to the University of Chicago Film Studies Center in May). When Mikey's mother needs a dress, she unhooks a pulley rope and lowers a clothing rod from the ceiling. The loft has all sorts of little nooks and crannies, and in one piercing scene Mikey surreptitiously erases an answering machine message from his distraught wife, then glances into the adjoining work area to see his father glaring at him. When the parents finally figure out what's going on and confront Mikey, there's an extraordinary scene in which his doting mother actually takes him into her lap. This turns out to be all he really needed.

The title character of Terri has no such luck: his parents have abandoned him to the care of his elderly uncle James, who suffers from Alzheimer's, and his school life is a constant misery. "Ah-OO-gah!" shouts one shithead classmate as he squeezes Terri's pendulous breasts, to the cruel laughter of the other kids. Terri is so sick of it all that he's begun showing up at school in pajamas, which catches the attention of the vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald. Out in the halls Fitzgerald plays the part of the badass disciplinarian, bellowing at troublemakers and hectoring students on their way to class, but inside his little office he turns out to be a real oddball with a deep sadness for the way people treat each other. The more he and Terri become friends the more he lets Terri down, until by the end of the movie they seem equally flawed, equally in need of understanding. The only thing separating the boy from the man is his innocence.

At home Terri has already begun to contend with the stresses and sorrows of adulthood. Jacobs opens with a medium shot of the boy, hulking in a small bathtub, as his uncle summons him from outside the door. He's already late for school, but the man wants food; when Terri gets out of the bath, he finds that Uncle James has taken the steaks meant for their dinner, put them in a frying pan, and left them to burn. Later, having cut class, Terri wanders around their small town and by chance finds his uncle in a store, disoriented and in need of help. ("I just needed to be near some bodies," says Uncle James.) Terri walks him home and gently shaves the old man before feeding him dinner, taking the fork from his hand, and helping him to bed. "You live a princess life here," the uncle tells Terri at one point, oblivious to how much help he requires. What's really painful, though, is how neglectful Uncle James seems even when he's lucid; notating a book and peering over his glasses at Terri, who more than deserves his attention, he says, "I don't want to be rude, but I want to take advantage of this window, if you don't mind."

Badly in need of a father figure, Terri gravitates toward Fitzgerald. We should remember that, though John C. Reilly enjoys a lucrative career in big-studio comedies (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, Cedar Rapids), he's consistently sought out and greatly enlivened an impressive number of small, idiosyncratic projects like this one (Mike White's Year of the Dog, Steve Conrad's The Promotion, Jay and Mark Duplass's Cyrus). His performance here is hilarious: he's located the character in the bursts of shouting he uses to do his job and the warped sense of humor he needs to deal with the weird kids sent his way. His greatest nemesis is Terri's classmate Chad (Bridger Zadina), a smart, angry, creepy little guy with bald patches where he's pulled out his own hair. When Terri first meets with Fitzgerald, the principal tells him there are two extremes of students, "the good-hearted kids and the bad-hearted kids," and he thinks Terri is one of the good-hearted ones. Terri asks if Chad is a bad-hearted kid. "No," replies Fitzgerald, "with him we're dealing with a third category, as yet unnamed and unknowable."

Terri's friendship with Fitzgerald has its ups and downs, especially when he learns from Chad that the principal's heart-to-heart talks and motivational lines are repeated to every student. But Fitzgerald has something important to teach Terri about truth and falsity. During one meeting he begins shouting angrily at Terri, then bends over and whispers to him that it's all a show for the benefit of his elderly secretary outside, Ms. Hamish (Mary Anne McGarry), who's in the last stages of lung cancer and gets a charge from hearing him yell at the kids. Later, when Ms. Hamish dies, Fitzgerald explains to Terri what the worst part is: he will have to break the news to Samantha (Jenna Gavigan), the pretty new temp filling in for her, and watch her pretend to be sad even though she's delighted to have the dead woman's job. "Life's a mess, dude," Fitzgerald tells Terri. "We're all just doing the best we can." You wonder if Fitzgerald's best is good enough when Terri, showing up at school early for once, finds the principal sleeping in his car after a fight with his wife.

Terri ventures into unexpected territory at its midpoint when the hero forges a friendship with Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), a pretty classmate who's been cast out socially after getting stroked off by a boy in the middle of home economics class. When she shows up to class in sunglasses and the teacher moves to punish her, Terri creates a distraction and defuses the incident. Heather follows him after class to ask why he stuck his neck out for her; Terri, unable to admit he adores her, fishes up Fitzgerald's routine about the good-hearted kids and the bad-hearted kids, engaging in the same sort of charade that so angered him when he was its object. Later on, when Heather comes over to his house for a visit and the venal Chad unexpectedly shows up with a bottle of liquor, Terri confronts the question of whether he's ready to be an adult or not. Given what he's seen of the grown-up world, you understand why he wants to cling to every scrap of childhood.

E-mail J.R. Jones at jjones@chicagoreader.com.

TERRI ★★★

Directed by Azazel Jacobs

Opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre in Chicago and Century 12 and CineArts 6 in Evanston.

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