Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is a depressed overweight teenage boy who suddenly starts wearing pajamas to school and, while taking care of his dependent ill uncle, finds a peculiar breach from routine by contemplating mice being stuck killed on mousetraps for a piece of Cheddar and posteriorly being eaten by birds, on the forest. Those are the woods he has to trailblaze every morning to go to school, along an old wrecked train rail, the perfect metaphor for his condition of misfit. We learn such right away, from the sad looks Jacob brilliantly puts on his face, from the way his colleagues mock him. When Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the school principal, calls him up to know what has been going on, he says he considers Terri to be in the group of the good-hearted kids, instead of the bad-hearted kids. However, when Terri comes back on the first of their weekly appointments, he realizes those are only for mentally or physically crippled students plus him: and that's the group he is in. And it hits him and us, without words and only reactions, as a comic-relieving harsh-dramatic bomb. Then, there's Chad (Bridger Zadina) over there, going bald for pulling his hair out one by one, blood clots sprayed all over his scalp, who seems to need yet another category. Terri and Chad begin to understand each other and befriend with little conversation.
Fitzgerald has a wise way not only with kids but with people. He is so self-conscious of his own flaws that he has the serenity of mind and spirit to understand and trivialize the imperfection of the human being. He has a special way with Terri, a special way with Chad and a special way with Mrs. Hamish (Mary Anne McGarry). When he shouts for the first times, behind that door, we think we know the kind of director, both good and bad family-guy-cop, but we soon unveil it's not strategy: it's faith. Between him and Terri, a friendly unorthodox relationship builds out of tiny solved conflicts, like the true meaning of his photo album "Yesterdays" or the fake-reprimand. They take Chad to the funeral of eventually recently deceased Mrs. Hamish and the film takes a light touch on death to develop the value of each single individual when part of a group - now, a group of people who care for each other.
Terri has been observing Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) for a while. We had the foreshadowing where she was on the verge of being fingered in class and the tension maintained. The second part of the movie, the most touching, starts developing with the payoff. When she doesn't resist Dirty Jack (Justin Prentice) and her own adolescent curiosity, he masturbates her in the classroom and she becomes the new social scapegoat, even Terri being preferred by the cute girls. Things get intense and the writer didn't expect us to guess it, he gave us visual action and character development to conclude that: Terri's rage outburst when he expels Chad off his house. The day after, he stands up for Heather in an incredibly sweet funny moment and their friendship triggers, shyly. That's when we turn to the yet same soft-paced third act, though steaming with emotional tension. A beautiful indie set-piece in which Terri finally cleans the house (his uncle had asked for it in the beginning), takes a nice bath, still keeps his pajamas. Heather is coming over. Chad interrupts, jealous but sincerely needy of attention. The three get drunk and drugged and have to deal with inconsequential sexual impulses they end up not carrying on - naivety, respect, shame, much of it. In other context, they would be humiliating themselves, all the three. But their disposal up there, taking their clothes off, it is taking it all in, all problems and hopes, falling asleep upon them. The next day, it feels weird, dreamy and embarrassing. But Terri remembers the connection. Its Saturday morning and he and Fitzgerald spend the day at school, dealing with the hangover, eating hamburgers, playing basketball. Terri finally smiles. Besides them, the place is empty, a perfect visual clue for what certainly staid pleading on Terri's mind - "It feels good to be desired", said Heather the night before.
I would have liked to have a little bit more of the mouse metaphor. A conclusion, although this film is never about conclusions. Every relationship is laid out open, uncertain, ambiguous. Every moment is so small and simple, so sincere. The characters are perfectly designed, extremely original, always surprising you in the end, when the emotional suspense of the decision-making second overbears the lack of a main plot line. The comedy doesn't provide laughs but its dramatic blossoming is absolutely enveloping. A great work by Azazel Jacobs and Patrick Dewitt, the cast, pretty songs, making this another 2011 Sundance premiere worth showing the world - my list already went with Take Shelter (playing on IndieLisboa on May 6th), Win Win, Our Idiot Brother, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Like Crazy, Margin Call and The Guard.
If you'd like to see the movie, it will play again on the festival, on May 3rd.