Azazel Jacobs, Terri, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Left: Heather (Olivia Crocicchia). Right: Chad, Terri, and Mr. Fitzgerald (Bridger Zadina, Jacob Wysocki, and John C. Reilly).

FOR ALL ITS SURFACE CALM AND CHARM, Azazel Jacobs’s Terri, a tale of woebegone adolescents, is a small but deadly missile aimed at more than a few of the stereotypes endemic to the coming-of-age genre. From the first shot of its forlorn, overweight protagonist (beautifully played by Jacob Wysocki) lying listlessly in a bathtub, to its final scene when Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald, the all-too-human assistant principal of his high school (a terrific John C. Reilly), bond over burgers and the errant ways of humanity, the film upends expectations—both for the path it pursues and for the ones it smartly avoids. Skirting the supercilious and the sentimental, as well as neatly pigeonholed images of “losers,” Jacobs strikes a tone both gentle and unnerving, rubbing our noses in enough unpleasant aspects of his characters to make us cringe with unwelcome familiarity rather than sympathize with smug detachment. Terri comes closer than the average film of its kind to capturing the borderline pathology that plagues adolescence, but it also has its share of dysfunctional adults. Ideal role models are nowhere in sight, and in the (unexplained) absence of his mother and father, Terri himself virtually parents the pre-dementia uncle with whom he lives. That he longs for affection and affirmation is clear when he feels betrayed that Mr. Fitzgerald treats him as he does other problem kids.

Chronically late and still in his pajamas, Terri drags himself to school. The effort is nicely symbolized by the divide between the hilly, wooded area he walks through every day and the school grounds below and beyond it. While the wood seems a haven of comfort before his descent to the daily taunts and humiliations of his homeroom peers, it is also where Terri lays out the mice he has caught in the attic for predatory birds, shrieking in delight when a hawk tears into rodent flesh. But neither Jacobs’s settings nor his characters fall into schematic contrasts. Terri’s genuine sensitivity coexists with a moderately sadistic pleasure typical of teenagers. Though the usual rituals and bullying abound, Terri is no pushover. He defends Heather, a pretty coed (Olivia Crocicchia) who is reprimanded for allowing a boy to touch her inappropriately in class, and pals around with the unbearably pathetic Chad (Bridger Zadina). No small part of the film’s queasy effect is the uncanny aptness of its casting.

Jacobs’s approach and themes coalesce most effectively in a scene near the end in which Terri, Heather, and Chad play out an adolescent long day’s journey into night that is as touching as it is repellent, its very duration reaching a level of discomfort that is the most truthful thing about it. Buzzed on alcohol, Chad pees on his pants; Heather ridicules his penis while offering herself to Terri; and he bares the fleshy breasts his classmates mock. Neither hip nor poignantly transcendent, the scene defies us to look away from its excruciating bluntness, offering neither an erotic nor a comic payoff. No dramatic aftermath or reductive message displaces the feeling that we’ve seen the underside of many a pathetic foray into adulthood. While Terri is unlikely to attract the audience that revels in more Dionysian treatments of adolescent angst, it has an integrity that warrants respect and attention.

Tony Pipolo

Terri opens Friday, July 1, in New York and Los Angeles.