The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Take Shelter

The suspense/horror genre has gained new prominence in indie cinema lately. This appears evident not only in films such as Ti West’s House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2012), and Calvin Reeder’s Lynchian-inspired The Oregonian (2011), but also in films that employ elements of the genre, notably Todd Rohal’s The Catechism Cataclysm (2010), Mark Jackson’s Without (2012), and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter (2011). Horror also seems to have crept back into our daily lives with a vengeance, taxing our psyches’ ability to grapple with catastrophes – both natural and human-made – that inundate us each day. Add to that an economic recession and the fact that ordinary people’s security nets are being pulled away ruthlessly. As a result, it should hardly be surprising that Jeff Nichols’s angst-ridden Take Shelter would strike such a responsive chord.

Nichols’s regionally flavored first effort, Shotgun Stories (2008), was a study of bitter hatred stemming from a family feud. His new film Take Shelter focuses on a construction worker in rural Ohio named Curtis (Michael Shannon), who is desperately trying to provide for his family as he begins to suffer hallucinations and nightmares that may be apocalyptic premonitions or merely demons inside his head. The film allows us to view Curtis’s torturous plight through its impact on his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf child Hannah (Tova Stewart), as well as his best friend, a hot-headed co-worker named Dewart (Shea Whigham). The fact that his mother began suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at a similar age adds a complicating factor regarding the nature of Curtis’s shaky mental state.

Take Shelter begins with tree branches swaying in the wind. Curtis stands in his driveway and surveys a clouded sky. As lightning flickers through the overcast sky, the ensuing drops of rain contain a viscous brown substance. Nature is just as much a character in Take Shelter. The great expanse of Midwestern sky appears ominous and threatening early on, as bad weather interrupts Curtis’s construction job at a gravel pit and causes Samantha to teach Hannah how to say “storm” in sign language. As Dewart and Curtis talk in the car after work and drinks, Dewart tells his friend: “You got a good life, Curtis. Serious. I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man. Take a look at his life, and say, ‘that’s good.’ That guy’s doing something right.” Curtis responds, “Well, it ain’t always so easy.”

Curtis’s remark is a gross understatement. As he stares at his sleeping daughter and Samantha appears bedside him, the parents worry over the fact that Hannah is unable to play with the other kids. Amidst more rain and lightening, Curtis has a hallucination in which the family dog attacks him. Concerned for Hannah’s safety, he puts the dog outside and later gives it away to his brother. As his own condition deteriorates, Curtis has terrible nightmares involving Hannah’s safety. In one instance, the furniture levitates and crashes in his living room. Curtis wets his bed, experiences a seizure, and spits blood. His behavior becomes more erratic. He ploughs money he doesn’t have into remodeling and expanding an old storm shelter to protect his family. In response, his brother warns him, “You take your eye off the ball one minute in this economy and you’re screwed.” Yet Curtis proceeds to put his pal Dewart in an awkward position and jeopardizes his job and health insurance, which is crucial to Hannah’s impending ear surgery.

Marital discord develops between Samantha and Curtis over his actions. She loves him deeply and is concerned for his well-being, but he’s clearly starting to unravel. The slow fuse in Curtis that’s been burning beneath the surface finally explodes at the local Lions Club dinner. His fury feels as if a scary Frankenstein-like monster has suddenly been unleashed, as Curtis admonishes his neighbors with a fire-and-brimstone tirade that’s downright biblical. Forced to decide whether to stay with her husband, Samantha develops her own plan to salvage their increasingly desperate situation. Take Shelter is like watching a Greek tragedy slowly unfold, but, to his credit, Nichols manages to keep us riveted right until the film’s unpredictable end.

Nichols’s Take Shelter has the ambition and grandeur of an American epic, in which the bonds of a working-class family get tested and pushed to the limits. It’s a truly remarkable second feature that, like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), left me utterly shaken when I first saw it opening weekend in New York City. A great deal of the power of Take Shelter derives from the film’s striking imagery, David Wingo’s haunting score, and the performances of Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon. Shannon, who was fantastic in Shotgun Stories, is even more mesmerizing here. Much of Curtis’s character is conveyed through gesture. His pained face somehow becomes a map of worried intensity, which is reinforced by his wooden jaw, bowed head, and a faraway look that appears when he’s talking. If there was a better acting performance last year, I didn’t see it.

As in Shotgun Stories, Nichols uses the natural landscape to full effect, especially in how weather contributes to the film’s overall mood and atmosphere. He told Scott Macaulay in Filmmaker that Take Shelter is “a movie about skies,” which necessitated shooting it on super 35 mm film. It’s against that threatening and turbulent sky and Adam Stone’s majestic cinematography that Curtis wages his battle – a human figure dwarfed by the natural world. He’s also at the mercy of an economy that can be equally brutal to those most vulnerable, such as someone like Curtis suffering from mental problems, or his daughter, Hannah, who needs expensive surgery. It is no wonder that Curtis clings to his family with such ferocity. He secretly knows that, without them, he’ll never be able to survive.

Posted 23 February, 2012

Jess + Moss

At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter wrote: “Experimental films at Sundance are not unlike the flu bugs that run rampant through the festival’s many crowded venues: They’re inevitable but to be avoided if possible” Even though the reviewer considered Jess + Moss to be an exception, he nevertheless qualified his response: “Not that its slow rhythms and intricate sight and sound design won’t tax the patience of those who trek here for celebrity sightings and the next hot film.” Why pander to the lowest common denominator? Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss was not only one of the most imaginative films at the festival, but also of the past year.

Jeter’s poetic film has a skeletal narrative, but exults in stunningly rich visual details rather than a conventional plot. Jess + Moss tells the story of an unlikely pair: an 18-year-old female named Jess (Sarah Hagan) and her 12-year-old second cousin, Moss (Austin Vickers). The two misfits hang out together during the hot summer months on a red-dirt tobacco farm in western Kentucky. They race bicycles, shoot off fireworks, smoke cigarettes (Moss only pretends), jump on trampolines, climb on top of giant grain bins, and play games in a dilapidated abandoned farm house, reenacting scenes from their childhood.

Although Jess and Moss are incredibly close to each other, the sullen Jess sometimes gets frustrated with her younger cousin due to their age difference. Early on, Moss tries to interest Jess in getting some free school supplies without success. He tells her, “You need art supplies. Your pencil is almost gone. You have, like no paper left in that art book.” When he asks Jess what kind of job she’s going to get, she’s unsure, but Moss thinks that she should design tee shirts because of her artistic skills. When Jess in turn asks Moss about his future plans, he wants to become a farmer and drive a tractor like everyone else in his family. “You don’t have to do that,” she cautions, “You can do whatever you want to do. It’s your life.”

Both Jess and Moss remain strangely isolated from others, but share a special bond. Moss lives with his overly religious grandparents. He later satirizes them by playing a preacher, as Jess corrects his saying of “The Lord’s Prayer” before enacting her own Crucifixion scene. What happened to Moss’s parents remains an issue that the film returns to over and over again. Moss relishes having Jess repeat the story of how his parents died in a car wreck and that his pregnancy and birth were the happiest events of their shortened lives. After dinner, as Moss eats a purple Popsicle, his grandparents dance to Connie Francis’s version of “Tammy.” This is intercut with shots of Jess, wearing a brassiere and wig, as she smokes a cigarette and poses in front of a mirror that somehow conjures up David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr (2001).

Jess lives with her father, who seems aloof and distant. As she eats what looks like a TV dinner and stares straight ahead, he complains: “Don’t be fucking taking cigarettes anymore. You’re old enough to get a damn job . . . buy your own smokes.” Jess spends time listening to cassette tapes left by her mother. They offer Jess advice and explain why she decided to leave the family. Jess + Moss is obsessed with old technology in a way that’s reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2010). The two characters listen to cassettes, as well as old records on a hand-cranked phonograph. In an effort to remember his past, Moss plays self-help tapes about improving his memory.

Despite its unconventional form, Jess + Moss still manages to be remarkably engaging as a poignant character study. Jess is pretty and has blue eyes, but she’s also tall and gangly, while Moss is short and much too young to be her companion. Jess knows this, of course, but this knowledge doesn’t prevent a repressed sexual undercurrent between them that’s palpable. As the film goes on, Jess only becomes more restless with her situation.

In one scene Jess questions Moss about his sexual experience – how far he’s gone with girls. He tells her he’s kissed one before, but when she mocks him for being in love with a younger girl named Haley, he adamantly denies it. As Moss takes a pee with his back to her, in voiceover he asks her what a dildo is. Jess insists that he’s much too young to know about such things, but when she explains that it’s a “substitute penis,” the two of them crack up. Moss and Jess have strange and intimate conversations, about such issues as longevity and the quality of life, including how long people should have to wipe your butt after you grow old. When they later dance together to an old record, Jess asks matter-of-factly, “Aren’t we supposed to dance closer?”

In another pivotal scene that takes place inside an old pickup truck in a barn while it’s raining, Jess takes off her wet blouse and suggests that they sit closer together for body warmth. She discusses the meaning of “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” which she describes to Moss as when a boy and girl go in a closed room and kiss or do whatever they want to do. Jess claims she’s done it before, but it’s clear that she’d also like to do it with him. Jess also remarks, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you? I know the difference between right and wrong,” as a worried look crosses Moss’s face. Nothing happens, but she later kisses him with intense affection when he falls asleep.

Despite her fondness for Moss, Jess is mean to him on several occasions. She locks him in the barn with Haley and shoots at one of his jars of moss and swamp water, the contents of which he continually investigates under a microscope. And when Moss storms into the room while she’s listening to her Mom’s tape on a huge boom box, their subsequent spat inevitably alters their relationship

Jeter reportedly began the film with a location, two performers, and over 30 different outdated film stocks. He then proceeded to develop the semblance of a story. He told an interviewer: “I had the outline for the story and often wrote on the day of shooting. There was never a full screenplay but just these pages of ideas.” Once production began, however, Jeter more or less discarded them in favor of a more improvisational approach. Much of the strength of the film derives from how the two performers, Sarah Hagen and the young novice Austin Vickers, inhabit their characters. The cinematography by Will Basanta is exceptional, while Isaac Hagy’s editing is impressive for the way he’s able to create a sense of fluidity between disparate scenes.

Mark Jackson’s Without, which I wrote about previously, is about digital memory. Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss is another memory piece about the ache of loss and abandonment, but the analog version. The two main characters’ nostalgia for old technology is their desperate attempt to hold on to the past. Yet neither Jess nor Moss fully understands the ways in which the past can often haunt the future.

Jess + Moss will have a week-long theatrical run at the reRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn starting February 17. The film is currently available on VOD, while the DVD will be released in late March.

Posted 11 February, 2012

Without

Mark Jackson’s debut feature Without is the latest independent film to leave me excited by the work that young indie filmmakers are able to accomplish on very low budgets these days.

Without tells the story of a 19-year-old young woman, Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen), who takes a temporary job as a live-in caretaker for an elderly man named Frank (Ron Carrier). He appears to have suffered a major stroke and is now wheelchair bound. The film begins with a close-up of the young protagonist’s face, which the camera holds on for over 30 seconds. Her head is tilted slightly down and her eyes quiver ever so slightly. Following the opening credit, we see that Joslyn is actually looking at her Smartphone while on a ferry boat to her new job. Without is a film that deals with technology’s impact on the young, who depend on it to communicate with peers and validate their own existence. Finding herself isolated on an island off the coast of Washington State without either the Internet or a strong cell signal, Joslyn gradually becomes unglued.

A hulking taxi driver, Darren (Darren Lenz), initially picks her up at the ferry. He comes on to her right away and turns out to be a persistent suitor. She cleverly fends him off by pretending to be going to a different house. Through pictures on her Smartphone, we discover that Joslyn appears to be infatuated with a young Asian woman, suggesting that she’s already in love, which provides an explanation for her indifference to Darren. Things, however, turn out to be far more complicated than we imagine. Left without a means of communication with the outside world, Joslyn’s situation begins to parallel that of Frank.

Frank is unable to speak, but, according to his family, he still remains very willful. They insist on a regimen that they refer to as the “Bible” – he only watches the fishing channel, the sound on the TV has to be set at a certain prescribed level, knives can’t go in the dishwasher, and Frank won’t share his whiskey. While the family’s own relationship with Frank is shown to be perfunctory at best, they act condescendingly toward Joslyn, especially by inundating her with all their house rules, which they’ve written down for her. At one point later in the film, she performs a very funny skit for the helpless Frank that satirizes their ridiculous restrictions regarding the use of the television.

As Joslyn cares for Frank, she seems oddly remote. She quickly becomes bored with her daily routine: the strenuous work of caring for Frank (spoon feeding him meals and lifting him into bed), the occasional trips to get a chai with skim milk at a nearby coffee stand, physical fitness exercise, and yoga. Cut off from the world except for photos and videos stored on her cellphone, Joslyn sets up an old computer with a Skype camera. Questions begin to arise for the viewer, but Mark Jackson, the film’s writer and director, is very careful to parcel out the pertinent details of the story very slowly, so that the viewer is forced to connect the ambiguous dots.

The silence between the two characters and their inability to communicate becomes a major source of friction in the film and a catalyst for what follows. Joslyn begins to suffer her own torments in the isolated environment, so that her feelings toward Frank begin to shift. When she first changes his soiled undergarments, she discreetly looks away. Given what we discern to be her sexual orientation, it’s understandable. Yet a strange sexual undercurrent eventually develops between her and Frank, especially as her loneliness causes her own sexuality and pent-up anger and remorse to surface in shocking ways. Before long, Joslyn finds herself in conflict with nearly all the other characters in the film.

The film plays with a number of different genres. As one might expect, the situation of a woman alone on an island contains elements of suspense and horror. What exactly is that skin rash that mysteriously appears on her back? Frank’s groans start to sound like a howling wolf. Her incapacitated client may or may not be as helpless as he seems. And the spurned Darren may actually pose a threat. Jackson is adept at making us wonder what’s real, given Joslyn’s growing instability, and what’s merely inside her head. The film’s strength is how Jackson is able to use a simple story and few elements to create such riveting dramatic tension.

Much of the film’s success is a result of Joslyn Jensen, who gives a brilliant, uninhibited performance as the film’s lead character. If there’s one thing certain these days, it’s that there are a bunch of terrific young performers out there. Jensen is so good, however, that it’s hard not to concentrate solely on the subtleties of her rendering of the character, especially in how she is able to portray steamy eroticism. Much of her performance is communicated nonverbally – through facial expressions, bodily movement, abrupt mood swings, and a song she sings while playing the ukulele that expresses the pain and grief of her character with such depth it will haunt you long after the film is over. Ron Carrier is excellent as well. He portrays Frank with a slight sense of menace, so that we’re never quite sure how to read his character.

Without was shot with a Canon 5D camera. This relatively inexpensive HD camera is notorious for giving shallow depth of field to an image. The film’s cinematographers, Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia, utilize this defect to great advantage. In an early scene, the camera is placed behind Joslyn, so that we move in with her toward the blurry shore as the ferry docks. The muted background of the shots often seems to suggest her own tenuous psychological state.

It’s hard to imagine the film being passed over for the Sundance Film Festival last year, especially given some of the other films that were programmed. Without played at Slamdance instead. It has also screened at Locarno and other film festivals and been nominated for a number of prestigious independent film awards. I’m told by Mike King, one of the programmers, that Without has been selected to play at the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival in April, along with Sophia Takal’s Green, which I have written about previously. Both films are not to be missed.

Mark Jackson’s Without represents a remarkable debut feature. An impressive character study, the film addresses issues of human communication and technology, as well as memory and loss. In exploring a young female character’s fragile psyche with an economy of means, Jackson uses the inability to communicate as a means to evoke what’s percolating under the surface. At the film’s opening, we view Joslyn’s seemingly innocent face, unaware of how much it hides. And the Smartphone she stares at so intently, little do we realize how much of her past life is contained in such a small handheld device.

 

Posted 1 February, 2012

The Catechism Cataclysm

Todd Rohal’s richly inventive debut feature The Guatemalan Handshake (2006) was overlooked by the Sundance Film Festival at the time. In retrospect, this seems like an inexcusable oversight. Lacking a distribution deal after playing at Slamdance, Rohal took a single 35mm print on the road for two years. At the end of the journey, according to IndieWIRE, he reportedly buried the copy in the desert and burned the film’s promotional materials as a form of catharsis. Rohal’s new film The Catechism Cataclysm (2011) played at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but, unfortunately, that’s no longer an assurance of a lucrative distribution deal. Yet The Catechism Cataclysm, which had a very brief theatrical run at the IFC Center in New York City, deserves a better fate. The film has also played VOD and will be released on DVD next month.

The Catechism Cataclysm reiterates Rohal’s gonzo approach to narrative. The new film very much takes aim at notions of storytelling. Father Billy (Steve Little) begins the film by telling a story to a Bible Study group about an elderly woman who mistakenly thinks her car is being stolen and pulls out a pistol, only to discover that she’s having a senior moment. Several of his parishioners are puzzled: What is the moral of the story? Father Billy claims such questions ruin it. When confronted by his superiors about his failure to make his sermons more pertinent to his congregation, he’s given a sabbatical to find himself. In response, Father Billy concocts a plan to renew his faith by embarking on a canoe trip with his old idol, Robbie (Robert Longstreet), whom he has badgered with endless emails after locating him on the Internet.

The Catechism Cataclysm tells the story of two contrasting characters: Father Billy, an immature and unhappy young priest, and his sister’s old boyfriend, Robbie Shoemaker. In high school, Robbie was a writer and death metal musician, whom the younger Billy worshiped, but his sister’s boyfriend, it turns out, doesn’t remember him. Father Billy mistakenly believes that Robbie is a musician in a major band, when, in fact, he’s merely a spotlight operator. That seems not to matter to Father Billy, who persists in his fantasies about Robbie’s super cool lifestyle. When he pesters Robbie for stories about his escapades, the roadie tells him about a couple of relationships that seem anything but romantic.

The Catechism Cataclysm takes the buddy film to its outer limits. It plays up the homoerotic nature of the genre by immediately having the two characters sit in adjoining bathroom stalls after eating greasy food at the diner where they initially meet. Father Billy, for instance, tests Robbie’s ability to detect the difference between simulated and real passing of gas. Father Billy’s bible, which he has been using as an autograph book, falls into the toilet after he takes a dump. The film’s obsession with bodily functions exploits a kind of juvenile male humor that seems perfectly appropriate to the buddy genre and male bonding.

When the two men rent canoes, they meet two female Japanese tourists, who are enacting their own fantasy of being Tom Sawyer (Koko Lanham) and Huck Finn (Miki Ann Maddox), along with their guide, a black man, of course, named Jim (Rico A. Comic). Leslie Fielder’s famous essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” originally published in the Partisan Review, forever changed everyone’s perceptions of American literature by emphasizing the homoerotic strain in Twain’s classic novel, as well as establishing it as a major literary theme. Rohal also manages to insert references to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, connecting the controversies of that novella to his use of similar material in the film.

Stories within stories abound in The Catechism Cataclysm. When Father Billy insists that Robbie tell him another tale, he recites one about a Mexican worker named Miguel who gets trapped inside a concrete pillar support underneath a highway while pouring concrete. A Latina woman, Maria, finds him and they fall in love, even though they can communicate only through a very tiny air hole. Father Billy wants to know, “And then what?” When that’s all there is, he criticizes Robbie’s fable for not having an ending, and offers his own version, which includes Miguel getting such a huge erection that it smashes through the cement. “It’s not an amazing boner story,” Robbie chides the priest, who seems obsessed with penises and inadvertently makes eyes at Robbie. “Don’t wiggle your eyebrows like that,” the roadie tells Father Billy, “It’s a come on. Do you want to come on to me?”

As the canoe trip continues, more stories get told. Once Father Billy and Robbie get lost and then stuck on shore, they meet up again with the Japanese women and Jim, at which point The Catechism Cataclysm veers off in even stranger and unexpected directions. In a mind-bending twist, the film suddenly switches genres, with references to David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). There were a number of weird indie movies released this past year, including Michael Tully’s Septien and Calvin Reeder’s Lynchian-inspired The Oregonian. Ironically, both feature the actor Robert Longstreet, who had a breakthrough year as an actor by also appearing in Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter. Longstreet’s inspired performance as Robbie, an aging hipster with unfulfilled dreams, is a big part of the charm of The Catechism Cataclysm, while Steve Little somehow manages to portray a case of stunted development and regression with uninhibited, almost giddy comic intensity.

According to an interview on Twitch, Rohal originally planned to shoot from an outline, but the actors wanted a full script, which he then wrote quickly. But, as usually happens these days, the script transformed in the process of shooting. Rohal explains: “Steve and Rob met the day before we started shooting. Steve’s been a member of the Groundlings for years and thinks incredibly quickly on his feet. I could simply give him a seedling of an idea and he’d run with it to some far-out places. And Rob is just totally natural in front of a camera. He’s the easiest man in the world to talk to, an actor who doesn’t stop thinking or creating for his character. He would riff on the script over the phone to me, I’d write down those ideas and integrate them into the next draft.”

Todd Rohal’s sheer fascination with the wonders of storytelling, disregard for conventions, irreverent sense of humor, and idiosyncratic penchant for the absurd shines through once again in The Catechism Cataclysm. The incongruous mix of religion and death metal makes for an intriguing character study, but it’s Rohal’s willingness to take narrative risks that ultimately makes the film such a pleasure to watch.

 

Posted 22 January, 2012

Terri

In Azazel Jacobs’s Momma’s Man, there’s a scene toward the end where the mother of the protagonist, Mikey, gets him to sit on her lap and he looks like an overgrown baby, dwarfing her in size. The image serves as an apt metaphor. He’s not a momma’s boy, but a grown man – stuck in a state of arrested development. Jacobs’s latest film, Terri, which played at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, features another social misfit, only this time, he’s not a young adult regressing back to high school, but an actual overgrown teenager named Terri (Jacob Wysocki), who wears pajamas to school. Unlike Mikey in Momma’s Man, Terri hasn’t been smothered to death by a doting mother. In fact, he doesn’t have parents – he claims not to know where they are – but lives with his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who suffers from early Alzheimer’s disease. Although the arc of Jacobs’s career appears to be heading toward becoming more commercial, beneath the surface of this coming-of-age story, from a script by Patrick deWitt, lies something far more bizarre than first appears.

The film begins with a close-up shot of Terri slumped against bathroom tiles. There’s a knock on the door. His head moves, as we hear Uncle James badgering him about cleaning the “tub ring.” After the opening title credit, we see the overweight Terri – a huge mound of flabby flesh – soaking in the bathtub. He responds, “I can’t clean it because I’m still in here, okay?” Terri’s resigned and curt responses show a frustration with having to deal with an uncle who has trouble keeping the basics straight. For this teenager, roles are reversed – he’s forced to be the caretaker when he’s clearly struggling himself. At school, he’s perpetually late and the other kids harass him by discussing sexual acts with girls, much to his annoyance. Terri tries to remain invisible, but his inappropriate attire brings him to the attention of the assistant school principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who delights in keeping track of the weirdos at his school.

Mr. Fitzgerald tells Terri he basically divides the kids into two groups – the good-hearted kids and the bad-hearted ones. When Terri asks which category he falls in, Fitzgerald suggests that he belongs in the good-hearted group, but then makes Terri come to see him every Monday morning. Mr. Fitzgerald is something else – an adult misfit in a position of authority. The most whacked-out student, Chad Markson (Bridger Zadina) – a pint-sized kid with the habit of pulling out his hair – is highly critical of Mr. Fitzgerald: “Half the time I think he wants to hit me; the other half, I’m scared he’s gonna kiss me or something.” When Chad goes into greater detail, Terri freaks out and abruptly kicks him out of his house.

Terri winds up befriending a female classmate, Heather Miles (Olivia Crocicchia), after she gets fingered by Dirty Zach in home economics class. When Mr. Fitzgerald is about to have her transferred to another school, Terri intervenes and the two teens strike up a friendship. When the ostracized Heather comes over to Terri’s house, Chad, uninvited, reenters the picture. This leads to an extended scene where the three of them get high off whiskey and pills. The loosening of inhibitions leads to painful and humiliating revelations that suddenly push the film beyond genre into what feels like uncharted territory. “It was not storyboarded,” Jacobs says of the scene in a Time Out Chicago interview. “I was able to get the kids to move around and start working together. I was on uncomfortable ground.… There was only one right thing to do—to [create] an atmosphere that showed realistically what these kids were willing to do.” The scene is riveting precisely because we’re never sure what might happen next, which is what makes adolescence such a fascinating phase in the process of growing up.

In Terri, all the characters manage to expose unflattering aspects of themselves. For all his goodness, Terri reveals a dark side when he becomes overzealous at catching mice in traps, causing Uncle James to tell him, “I didn’t even know you were capable of doing something so ugly.” When Terri tells Mr. Fitzgerald about the incident, he responds, “It’s blood lust, dude. It’s a hard habit to stop once you get started in on it.” Terri, however, later becomes angry when he realizes that he’s been lumped in with the other “monsters” at school, which causes Fitzgerald to tell him a personal story about growing up, which merely proves to be a part of his motivational shtick.

Mr. Fitzgerald may, in fact, be the most confused person in the entire film. He is shown to be a liar, a guy who pretends to chew kids out for the benefit of his elderly, dying secretary. Fitzgerald is someone with his own marital problems. His interactions, fraternization, and unprofessional comments about the personal lives of his students and staff would most likely get him fired (if anyone happened to be paying attention). It’s no surprise when graffiti appears on the side of the school building, announcing “Fitzgerald is a Zombie.” At one point during a session with Terri, Fitzgerald puts his head in his hands on the desk and despairingly tells him: “You know sometimes I just think I should leave you kids on your own. The way these other kids treat you, maybe that’s preparation for the real world.”

Mr. Fitzgerald later confesses to Terri, “Life’s a mess, dude. But we’re all doing the best we can . . .  So if I hurt you or if I lie to you, all I can tell you is ‘I’m sorry.’ And I will try to do better. Maybe I will do better, or maybe I’ll do even worse. I don’t know. I screw up all the time. Because that’s what people do.” Jacobs’s tale of adolescence seems to suggest that, despite everything that happens, Terri does find some consolation. Mr. Fitzgerald may be a terrible role model on many levels, but Terri manages to learn from him, along with the other cast of misfits, including poor Chad.

Terri is not a tale of adolescent redemption. It resembles more honest films on the subject like Neal Jimenez and Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge or Antonio Campos’s Afterschool. Jacobs admits that he was more of a hardcore punk rocker in high school, which meant being “cowardly mean.” He told an interviewer at SXSW: “So, I don’t know, I’m not trying to make amends but it’s something that you think about as you get older . . . how you could have been nicer person.”

 

Posted 17 January, 2012

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