TERRI IS A MESS. He's overweight. He's unpopular. He wears pajamas to school. He's constantly late to class, meaning that he's sent to the vice principal's office so frequently that the vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), schedules the kid for weekly meetings.
Terri (Jacob Wysocki) has reasons for being such a misfit. His parents are absent—the movie doesn't say why, and Terri doesn't seem to know either—so the teenager is left to be the sole caretaker for his ailing Uncle James (Creed Bratton of The Office, impressive in a non-comedic role). James has good days and bad, but they're mostly bad, which means that James is more or less fully dependent on Terri, who can scarcely take care of himself.
Through their weekly meetings, Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald gradually become friends, although Terri is cautious in a way that indicates he's been badly betrayed by nearly everyone in his life. Mr. Fitzgerald, for his part, seems just as in need of friendship as Terri does; as portrayed in a typically left-field performance by Reilly, the older man has some anger issues buried deep. If he's not the ideal role model for Terri, at least they both have their angst in common.
This all sounds like fodder for your standard Hallmark-y teacher-student flick, but Terri is a little too strange a movie, and a little too intensely personal, to fit into a formula. If at times it plays like a quirky comedy without any actual laughs, it's also grounded in an unvarnished honesty about human nature that many movies don't dare examine. (The screenwriter, Patrick deWitt, is an Oregon author who also wrote the great novels Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers.) Yes, it's about feelings and loneliness and all that crap, but Terri's never a bummer and, more importantly, it's never sentimental.
As he comes out of his shell, Terri makes a few careful, fragile friendships with some of the other outcasts in his school, including Chad (Bridger Zadina), a whelp of a kid who's got bald patches on his head from tearing his hair out. There's also Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who's nearly expelled after she's caught getting fingered in class; after Terri bends the truth to Mr. Fitzgerald to keep Heather out of trouble, she acts like she might be sweet on him. All three kids get fucked up on whiskey and Uncle James' pills one night, and while that scene is the only thing in Terri that feels vaguely phony, this sweet, slight coming-of-age story generally avoids hitting familiar notes.