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Bridger Zadina and Jacob Wysocki in a scene from "Terri"
Bridger Zadina and Jacob Wysocki in a scene from "Terri"

Warren Clements: On Demand

Terri offers a twist in the misfit coming-of-age genre Add to ...

Patrick deWitt, born on Vancouver Island and based in Portland, Ore., must be having an anxious few weeks. On Oct. 18, he finds out whether his second novel, The Sisters Brothers, has won the Man Booker Prize for fiction; on Nov. 1, whether it has won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; and on Nov. 8, whether it has won the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

He can relieve the tension by curling up with a good DVD. Terri (2011) is an off-kilter coming-of-age tale set in California. But then, deWitt would know that, since he wrote the screenplay for director Azazel Jacobs after Jacobs read a few of deWitt’s sketches and suggested the one about the misfit high-school kid would do nicely, thank you.

Movies about misfit high-school kids are legion. The ingredients are legislated by the genre: the monstrous or sympathetic authority figure, the teasing or bullying classmates, the likely or unlikely liaisons formed with other misfit kids, the warm or chilly home life. What matters is the treatment of the material.

Terri (Jacob Wysocki), a plump teenager, lives in a house by a ravine with his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who slips in and out of what seems to be early Alzheimer’s. Terri walks everywhere, including school, in his pyjamas (“They’re just comfortable on me”). He is regularly teased, but is no pushover. His orbit crosses those of two other students: a girl who is shunned for having let a boy fondle her intimately, and a hell-raising boy who really needs a friend.

The movie’s chief novelty is the relationship between Terri and the vice-principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly). Fitzgerald has good instincts and clumsy methods. He wins Terri over with confidences, until Terri realizes the supposed sharing is just an off-the-rack routine. The mentor-student relationship takes two steps forward, one step back. Wysocki and Reilly handle the byplay without a false note.

Fans of The Office may recognize Creed Bratton’s name; he plays the creepy older employee on the U.S. series. Music fans may know he was a founding member of the 1960s pop group the Grass Roots, whose catchy hits included Midnight Confessions and Bella Linda. The DVD’s making-of feature briefly captures Bratton playing guitar and singing an improvised song about life on the film set. The guy’s good.

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