THE TITLE character in "Terri" is a chubby teenage boy tormented at school and overmatched at home, where he's caring for the faltering uncle meant to be his guardian.
His parents are alive but gone (we aren't told why), so Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is in charge of the household, though he's barely able to take care of himself. He's bright, and he's a compassionate kid with an eye to the problems of others, but he's starting to lose his way.
At school, his dipping grades and growing social isolation catch the attention of a quirky new principal, Mr. Fitzpatrick (John C. Reilly). Terri finds he's part of a group of misfits that Fitzpatrick assembles on Mondays for special attention, counseling, and bizarre pep talks.
This has very distant echoes of John Hughes, but "Terri" is very much an independent, and generated some buzz this year at Sundance. The movie makes no concession to conventional, Hollywood storytelling, and at times seems to have little structure at all.
There are generous stretches of screen time devoted to big, lumpy Terri simply walking to and from school - like the movie, in no particular hurry, vaguely concerned about where he's going.
"Terri" is at its liveliest when Reilly is on screen. He gives us a vivid portrait of a guy who's found his niche in a small town, helping kids in the margin, showing an understanding of their adolescent problems that seems to come from personal experience. That Mr. Fitzpatrick has ongoing, grown-up issues (a fairly rocky marriage) accounts for some bleak laughs.
Reilly excels in these kinds of offbeat roles, and of course stands out in a cast of younger, mostly untutored performers. Wysocki is a bit range-bound as an actor, or he's been instructed to stay in a narrow range by director Jacob Azazel ("Momma's Man"). Wysocki has a few nice scenes, though, with Olivia Crocicchia, playing a pretty girl he rescues from infamy and loneliness with an act of kindness.
Another riff on Beauty and the Beast?
Not hardly. None of the relationships play out according to known references or formula. "Terri" is thoroughly unpredictable, if not always satisfying.
Misfits don't bond or gain confidence via mutual strength, and Mr. Fitzpatrick turns out to need more counseling than he dispenses.
Still, the movie leans every so slightly in the direction of hope. Terri never finds a soul mate, or even a reliable friend, but he ends up feeling less alone. He goes to school in pajamas and Crocs, but he does go to school. And he finds the courage to keep taking another step forward.