Mike Plante, who writes a blog about film festivals, proposes something called the “Cinema of Outsiders.” By this he means not only are most independent (and leading foreign) filmmakers “outsiders” to Hollywood and other global commercial film factories, they often base their films on characters who are themselves outsiders—unintegrated, despised, maybe even feared. Some of these characters want desperately to be “insiders,” that is, socially accepted. Others couldn’t give a damn about what society thinks of them.
It’s always fun to make lists of films. Here are two short ones by me. The first is of films about outsiders who want in:
- Elephant Man—short of major surgery, the title character is never going to make it inside.
- Welcome to the Dollhouse—Dawn is unremarkable, not pretty or poised, lacking in social skills, neglected by her parents and teachers.
- Edward Scissorhands—You are pretty much going to remain an outsider if you have weird hands that look threatening.
- The Conversation—Professional bugger is kept an outsider by his conscience. He knows what he does is immoral and in fact leads to the deaths of three persons.
- Fatso—A little-seen film by Australian director Irina Goundortseva, about a lonely elevator operator.
Here are a few films about characters who relish being outside: Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Crumb, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Bonnie and Clyde. But our August film, Terri, is about the other kind of outsider, the one who would like to be on the inside or at least have a few friends.
Terri, played by Jacob Wysocki, has so much going against him. He’s still in school. He is “overweight” or “obese,” depending on how you feel about him. He has given up on any kind of respectability in clothing and simply wears pajamas to school, inviting ridicule. Worse, he is burdened by having to care for his dementia-stricken uncle almost all the time when he’s not in school.
Often plots about outsiders insert characters who want to rescue the outsiders, even bring them inside if possible. In Edward Scissorhands, it’s Peg, played by Dianne Weist, who discovers Edward living alone in his gloomy old castle. She bring Edward into opposite surroundings, her tract house. In Terri, directed by Azazel Jacobs, the caring character is one of the school’s principals, played by John C. Riley, himself a former outsider.
Writers and directors of indie outsider films have to be careful. They run the risk of tipping the film too far toward sentimentalism. It’s easy for audiences to turn off to social outlanders. Critics apparently don’t feel this way about Terri. For example, Karina Longworth, writing for The Village Voice, comments (with a lexicon all her own):
“[Terri’s] climax, a glorious extended three-hander in which Terri, his love interest and a frenemy get wasted and confront their basest impulses, is perfectly modulated. The kind of scene that would be played for nihilist shock in a typical Amerindie, [director] Jacobs stages it to reveal depths, layers, and vulnerabilities to characters who couldn’t reveal their vulnerabilities until forced by intoxicants. Crowd pleasing without being pandering, Terri above all else feels true.”
Amy Tauben of Film Comment too is sensitive to the film’s balance:
“Neither sentimental nor exploitative, Terri depicts high school as a place where, as the assistant principal (John C. Reilly) explains, Terri has the opportunity to come to terms with the fact that “life is a mess, dude, but we are all just doing the best we can.” Terri bonds with this unusually honest adult and with two other students who are also receiving counseling: anxiety-ridden Chad, who compulsively pulls out his own hair strand by strand, and gorgeous Heather, whose popularity takes a sudden plunge after she allows her boyfriend to [do sex on] her in plain sight… “
You watch (or choose not to watch) Hollywood summer movies about teens; all seem insiders, boringly hip, preoccupied with inconsequentiana. Their angst is ultimately low-grade and contrived. Terri comes round this season to remind us of what real outsiders do and think, and explore their chances for integration. Maybe the film reminds us of times when we too were outsiders. Or maybe Terri is most valuable for suggesting what we ourselves might do to rescue lonely souls from the purgatory of being outside.