The Best We Can: 'Terri' finds God in unexpected places

Fundamentally, the new film Terri, directed by Azazel Jacob, is about grace—about needing it, not wanting it and giving it. While many reviewers have praised the work for its acting, inventive humor and novel approach to the labored theme of being a teenage reject, they have generally failed to note this aspect of the film. The film is sometimes poignantly uncomfortable and even frustrating. Ultimately, however, it presents us with a pair of quirky but inspiring characters who try to reveal God's activity in our world.

The subject matter of “Terri” is fairly simple. It covers a brief segment in the life of its title character, an overweight and underappreciated high school student (played by Jacob Wysocki) as he learns about himself and how to relate to others. The film doesn’t divulge many details of Terri’s personal life, but we know his parents are absent and he lives with his uncle (“The Office”’s Creed Bratton). “Uncle James” has a mentally degenerative disorder—about which the film is similarly reticent—and Terri cares for him.

Like most adolescent pariahs, Terri is a bit eccentric: he wears old-fashioned pajamas to school (“they’re just comfortable on me,” he says) and he regularly drapes dead rodents from his attic mousetraps over a log in the woods. When a hawk finally gobbles one up, his astonished gape shows that he is not just another teenager with macabre hobbies, as his uncle assumes. Rather, Terri seems mesmerized by his own participation in an expansive world that would otherwise carry on without his notice.

The plot emerges when Terri’s vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), himself a recovering teenage outcast, decides to mentor Terri during his passage to adulthood. “Mr. Fitz” helps several ostracized students, including the mischievous and sometimes devious Chad (Bridger Zadina), whom Terri befriends. Terri’s complicated relationship with these two figures, in addition to his even more complicated relationship with his coquettish classmate, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), drives the narrative.

All five of the main characters suffer from insufficient affection and feelings of inadequacy. Terri absorbs scorn from everyone; they laugh at him, pester him with sexually provocative questions and rudely grab his overweight body. Uncle James has no one to look after him but Terri, who, as a teenager, should have a guardian himself and not have to take care of someone else. Mr. Fitzgerald is the subject of derisive graffiti; when Terri asks him about his marital problems, he sighs: “For some people, Terri, enough is just not enough.” Chad’s parents are nowhere to be found, and he spends much of his time drugged or drunk, enduring mockery in his few (albeit poorly articulated) attempts to be accepted by his peers. Finally, Heather lets boys do far more than they should with her, telling Terri it might seem stupid, but it feels nice to be wanted.

In other words, the characters are blind to God's presence in their lives. As Mr. Fitz says to Terri in a comment that captures the essence of the film, “Life’s a mess, dude, but we’re all just doing the best we can. So if I lied to you, all I can tell you is I’m sorry and I’ll try to do better….I screw up all the time because that’s what people do.”

Despite the characters’ desperate need for grace, most of them do everything they can to avoid participating in it. When Mr. Fitzgerald first calls Terri into his office and tells him he wants to help, Terri responds, “I guess I just wish I didn’t need help.” He’d prefer to have no problems or needs because accepting help means being vulnerable. Similarly, Chad spurns Terri’s initial attempt to reconcile their friendship, brandishing his middle finger. With Chad, there are no second chances because he refuses to be hurt twice. Finally, Heather’s extreme fear of ridicule causes her to sacrifice the only source of grace she has, her friendship with Terri.

Luckily, the film offers a few glimpses of the way God mysteriously works in our lives. While subject to harshness themselves, both Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald extend grace to everyone in their lives. They respond to mockery, suspicion and abuse with patience, candor and care. When Chad refuses Terri’s attempt at reconciliation, Terri keeps trying, offering acceptance and inclusion in place of his previous anger and bitterness. He presents Heather with unconditional friendship when the rest of the school abandons her and continues to help his uncle, regardless of the challenges involved. Likewise, Mr. Fitz summons the outcasts to his office so he can mentor and uplift them, all the while pretending to scold them so his aging assistant, Ms. Hamish, will enjoy her job more.

The most remarkable aspect of the movie, though, is not that Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald dole out grace extravagantly but that these two find each other. At the beginning of the film, Terri is misunderstood by everyone. Sadly and all-too-accurately, not much changes in this regard except that, by the end, his relationship with Mr. Fitz has allowed him to understand himself.

For Mr. Fitzgerald, the relationship is also redemptive. In talking with the young outsider, Mr. Fitz is able to work through his own history as a social misfit and, in some way, find healing. And Terri’s questions and insights help Mr. Fitz to see that life is a difficult journey for everyone.

Life is hard and we’re not going to do everything right; but no one else is going to do everything right either, so we have to be kind to each other, to look for God's presence in the unlikeliest of places. While the film is well-acted, funny and inventive, it is ultimately this insight that makes it important and worth seeing.

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