London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 5

The high school film has been bled pretty dry in recent times, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine there’s anything left to say.

We’ve had high school musicals, horror and science fiction. Hell, we’ve even had high school-set versions of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You (1999)) and Othello (O, 2001).

One genre that’s been mined more than any other in the high school though is the coming of age tale. So Terri, on the face of it should just be one more entry on a long and largely tedious list.

Terri

The fact that it’s lifted to a loftier perch than many of its predecessors says a lot about about Azrael Jacobs’ film and the huge talent of leading man Jacob Wysocki as the titular Terri.

Terri is an outsider in the truest sense of the word. A large, ungainly figure, he lives with his sick uncle in a woodland cottage seemingly miles from the rest of civilisation. He goes to school in his pyjamas, turns up late to class and drifts along barely speaking a word to anyone. In fact the only time he seems to look happy is when he gives a hand to a wild bird in the woods by trapping mice and leaving them for it to eat.

His unusual dress sense, size and gentle ways single him out for unwanted attention at the hands of the school’s bullies, who poke fun at his naive and innocent demeanour. It’s not long before he pops on to the radar of school vice-principal Mr Fitzgerald (a rarely better John C Reilly), who pulls Terri into his office and opens up a conversation in the hope of getting through and helping him.

As Mr Fitzgerald sees it, Terri is one of the good-hearted kids, although the 15-year-old thinks of himself more of a monster and at first takes umbrage at the vice-principal’s slightly embarrassing efforts to make a connection. But Mr Fitzgerald persists and over the course of the next few weeks gradually develops a rapport with Terri.

Meanwhile, Terri comes to the aid of classmate Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) when he steps in to save her from being thrown out of school following an unfortunate incident during home economics. Shunned as a result of what’s happened, Heather and Terri form a tentative friendship.

Terri also finds himself connecting with fellow misfit Chad (Bridger Zadina) and the three teenagers end up spending an hilarious night dining out in Terri’s shed on booze and his uncle’s meds. In the hands of a hack director these scenes, especially the moment when Heather invites Terri to kiss her, could have come off as false, but Jacobs refuses to force anything and their eventual conclusion is heart-breaking, but totally believable.

The same can be said of the friendship between Terri and Mr Fitzgerald. Both desperately lonely people, the moments with the two of them spending the morning in school on a Saturday are a delight to watch and never once stray into kookiness or schmaltz. Instead we’re left with Terri, Mr Fitzgerald and the others getting on with their lives, having moved on very little from where we found them. But for us, the journey has been a rewarding one.

While Terri is a worthy example of American low-budget indie film-making, Miss Bala is a fantastic advert for Mexican cinema, if not for the country itself.

Miss Bala

Mexico has produced some significant figures in world cinema in the past few years – actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Salma Hayek and directors Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro are but a few examples. Gerardo Naranjo could soon be joining this elite roll call of talent if Miss Bala is anything to go by.

Laura (model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman) lives with her father and young brother and dreams of one day becoming a beauty queen. She enters the Miss Baja California contest and, after making it through the audition is told to report back the following day.

She’s persuaded by her friend to join her at a local nightclub, but while there Laura bears witness to a brutal massacre by a highly organised and well-equipped drug gang. Managing to make it out alive she goes in search of her friend but cannot find her. To make matters worse she’s told by the contest organisers that she’s out as she failed to report back on time.

When she approaches a local transit cop to ask for his assistance in tracking her down, she inadvertently winds up encountering the very people who perpetrated the slaughter and so undergoes a relentless, terrifying nightmare at the hands of violent gang boss Lino Valdez (Noe Hernández).

Laura’s first task is to drive a car a short distance, park it up and walk away – straightforward enough until she discovers she’s parked it outside the US Embassy and inside the boot are three corpses, including an American DEA agent.

She runs away but is soon tracked down, firstly by drug enforcement agents who are after a phone given to her by Lino and then Lino himself, who agrees to let her father and brother go so long as she starts doing as she’s told. Like a puppet on a string, Laura finds that as she spirals deeper into the pit of oblivion she’s stumbled into she’s increasingly powerless to do anything about it, especially when she discovers that no sides in this grisly drug war are clean.

Even the beauty contest itself isn’t immune from the corrosive effects of corruption, exemplified by Lino when he exerts his considerable influence on its outcome in a twisted display of generosity towards the exhausted, defeated Laura.

Naranjo does a fine job of showing us a glimpse of the enormity of the US-Mexico drug trafficking business through the eyes of one small, insignificant figure and isn’t one to shie-away from fingering the blame as much on the corrupt Mexican police and drug agencies as the gangs themselves.

He’s also extremely confident with his use of the camera (ably supported by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély), using a number of long, impressively choreographed takes, most notably in the explosive set pieces in the nightclub and during a pitch street fight between police and the gang.

A uniformly excellent cast is led by the superb Sigman, who commits to the role of an innocent young woman left numb by forces she barely understands.

An urgent, thrilling work, Miss Bala is a visceral punch to the gut and one of the finest films of the festival.

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