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Terri: Marooned in Teendom

While Azazel Jacobs' Terri seems like it may be another teen coming-of-age story, it turns out it's a refreshingly new take on an old genre.

Terri: Azazel Jacobs
Jacob Wysocki & John C. Reilly in Terri


Joining a long, illustrious line of American independent cinema that seems to occupy a genre-laden space while actually subverting its confines (Half Nelson, Dazed & Confused), Azazel Jacobs’ new feature Terri is a teen coming-of-age film that cannot be boxed into any clichéd territory. Revolving around overweight teen Terri (newcomer Jacob Wysocki), who lives with his mentally debilitated uncle (Creed Bratton from The Office), the film charts Terri’s progress through high school as he navigates the pitfalls of friendship, attraction, and bullying, with the help of the school’s assistant principal (John C. Reilly).


On paper it may sound played-out, but that’s hardly the case: due to Jacobs’ slow, deliberate pacing and his clear fear of simplifying or dumbing down his characters, the film manages to maintain a genuine quality not typically found in films of comparable subject matter. The reason for that may be that most teen coming-of-age films are works that pander to audiences that are the same age as their characters, works that display a sort of contempt for the intelligence of their teen audience. That’s not so here, where Jacobs is attempting not so much to provide any instructive life lessons for Terri as he is to just simply watch him slightly mature; the film is not a major bildungsroman, but rather, a telling snippet, a small piece of a teen’s life. I had the chance to speak with Jacobs over the phone recently.


Terri: Azazel Jacobs
Azazel Jacobs on the set of Terri


Tribeca: Terri could have turned into a teen-mentor-bonding movie, or a teen-coming-out-of-his-shell film really easily, but it avoided those traps very well. It didn’t come from a predetermined narrative place. Were you thinking about that at all when making the film?


Azazel Jacobs: Well, all sorts of genres have shaped me as a filmmaker, but definitely coming of age movies. I wanted to make sure that I could make a film that could stand alongside some of my favorites, but could also stand on its own and be unique. The movie could definitely have gone in one direction. But I think a good way of avoiding being predictable was making things move in real time, like real life, which I think a lot of more clichéd films don’t do—they really rush things.


Tribeca: Where did your sense of pacing come from?


Azazel Jacobs: The script allowed it. The thing that really attracted me to the script—I liked the dialogue—but it also gave me space, space between the lines, to be in the room with these characters, to let things breathe and resonate. That was where I was able to enter the script, as a filmmaker.


Terri: Azazel Jacobs
Creed Bratton in Terri


Tribeca: This is your first film that’s set in a more rural, non-metropolitan setting. What did that enable you to do that you couldn’t have done if it had been set in an urban center?


Azazel Jacobs: Well, it allows you to isolate the characters in a very specific way. You know, you have Terri going into town, and he’s the only person in town. I think you get the sense of what he’s stacked up against even more. I mean, I’m sure the story couldn’t exist in a city in the same way. I can’t imagine this kid getting onto the subway or the bus in his pajamas. I think Terri is marooned, at the beginning of the film especially. Having it set in a small town amplifies that.


Tribeca: How’d you end up picking the town you shot in?


Azazel Jacobs: It was within a 30-mile zone [laughs]. The tax cuts we were given were very important. They allowed the film to happen in a lot of ways. I wasn’t avoiding palm trees, but I did want to find a “Small Town, USA” sort of feel.


Terri: Azazel Jacobs


Tribeca: The foliage in the wooded area near where he lives is so lush and overgrown. It’s almost like he is kind of marooned, like you said.


Azazel Jacobs: That’s another reason I don’t think the film could exist in a city. It’s a fable. It’s based on a reality, but there are a lot of things that I’m stretching this way or that way. Dealing with the concrete of a city would have grounded it in a totally different way. I wanted this movie to exist on this planet, but maybe, like, a foot off the ground.


Tribeca: Were there any challenges for you, in terms of capturing that non-urban environment?


Azazel Jacobs: It was challenging, but also freeing. You know, when you shoot in an environment you know well, you can get obsessed with little details—this person’s heading uptown, and you don’t want to cut to a shot of him suddenly heading downtown. It was freeing, having a place I could build and say, “This path leads to this place”—kind of create the world. The biggest challenge in a film where you’re telling somebody else’s story is how to make it personal, how to make it your own. Where can you find yourself in there without trying to be a show-off?


Tribeca: So what was your way in?


Azazel Jacobs: I think the point of entry for me, in a weird way, was Terri’s home. Obviously I had a very different upbringing than Terri did, but when we went location scouting for Uncle James’ home, I found a house that reminded me a lot of the home I was raised in. It felt familiar, being in that place Terri came from. It served me well.


Terri: Azazel Jacobs
Jacob Wysocki in Terri


Tribeca: What was your relationship with Jacob Wysocki like? How did you come to find him?


Azazel Jacobs: The casting directors found Jacob. They did a long, long search, and I got to see many strong Terris. But Jacob brought in a certain kind of confidence that I thought was essential for Terri. I was able to try this Terri with that Chad, and that Chad with that Heather, and the way that Jacob interacted with this particular Heather, and then I brought John in, that really dictated how things would go. Jacob is just a good kid; he’s a good person. I like making movies with people that I like, you know? People I look forward to being on set with.


Tribeca: There’s a kind of restrained, quiet dignity to him that really came across. If he was too self-deprecating, it could have been clichéd.


Azazel Jacobs: Exactly. And Jacob walked in with that. He has that, as a person. He’s very different from Terri, but at the same time, I felt like Terri needed that confidence. I didn’t want this to be a story about a kid who overcomes things and decides to relax in his size, in his situation. We kind of start from that point, and go somewhere else from there.


Terri: Azazel Jacobs
Jacob Wysocki & Olivia Crocicchia in Terri


Tribeca: There’s a sequence toward the end of the film—a very long scene with Terri, his friend, and the girl he likes—and it was so tense and so well done. Can you talk a bit about how that came together?


Azazel Jacobs: Thanks, that was the scene I was most worried about, the most ambitious. I wanted to deal with these nights to remember in a different way than how I had seen on film, in a way I had experienced them myself. No matter how exhilarating they are, there’s always this threat of things turning on a dime. I wanted to show that in a realistic way.


When I watch the movie now, and I see how trusting and open these kids are—how many nights are there when people say exactly what they mean? For them to do that and have it not be corny, or be mocking—I feel really touched not only by the characters, but by the actors’ ability to be so trusting to me and ultimately to the film itself.


Terri opens Friday, July 1. Find tickets.


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