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High School Daze

July 13, 2011 By:
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Director Azazel Jacobs brings the best out of actors in "Terri," opening on July 22 in Philadelphia. Photos by Alexandra Weiss/ATO Pictures

"Terri" and the pirates he pals around with -- high school outcasts who all have walked the plank of life and fallen into its ocean only to be spit right back up and out -- will never find the hidden treasure of peer acceptance.

But among each other -- the obese, obsequious Terri; the self-mutilating Chad and the cute, but sexually crestfallen Heather -- the trio plunders and blunders their way into a freakish friendship that needs no decoder ring to determine the loneliness that haunts them all.

But who knew that their school vice principal would serve as the captain courageous to steady their life's walk when all they ever expected was a Captain Hook to yank them from the mainstream?

Azazel Jacobs' unorthodox and unexpectedly complex coming-of-age story -- with undercurrents of real riptides of emotion -- comes from a different place than his previous pictures, including "Momma's Man" (2008).

Indeed, so does its cast: For "Momma's Man" -- in which a husband/father leaves his family behind to move back in with his own folks -- Azazel homed in on his own home, using his parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs, to play the protagonist's parents.

How surreal? Not so much, considering that the Jacobs -- especially dad, Ken, -- are in the avant-garde of filmmaking, flag-wavers for experimentation, with the father's 40-year-in-the-making epic "Star Spangled to Death" a truly indie star turn.

"The art that I make is not about messages," the iconoclastic Ken Jacobs once opined. "Art is about presenting enigmas."

Like father, like his 38-year-old son, whose "Terri" takes the terror of the outsider outside its usual cinematic ken, presenting no easy outs, no comfy-cozy coda, but offering an existential example of life at its most insouciant.

"I was a student at a middle school in the West Village," recalls the New Yorker, "and always had been told by my father that, as Jews, we are in the minority. But I would look around at my class and 75 percent of the kids were Jews.

"I was sure my dad had things wrong."

But then he ran into the Berlin wall of difference. "I discovered this whole other world when my father got a filmmaking grant to work in Berlin, and my first semester there, there was only one other Jewish kid in the class.

"It was the first time I really understood" the notion of being the outsider, he says of being 13 and receiving the unusual Bar Mitzvah lesson of what it means to be barred from the mainstream.

He's carried the lesson alongside the well-thumbed script for "Terri": "There are no Jews in this movie," he laughs, "which is the polar opposite of the world I know." But he knows his film and knows his dad's input has influenced him, admiring his father's work as a world apart.

"What I do is very different," he says; "Terri" focuses on a small piece of the world while his father's multipart "Star Spangled to Death" "has something big" to say about universal truths.

"I'm more cowardly in my approach; I try to control just sections of the world."

It's his world and welcome to it -- which audiences have done, packing screenings and pouring out accolades, with fans doing a Sundance of praise at the famous Utah festival earlier this year.

But when your whole perspective of life is inside/out, what becomes the norm? "I grew up with parents who were outsiders," he says, "but they were the 'inside' for me," parental paragons of what the norm represented.

But another film actually greased the wheel for understanding the real and reel world's definition of interloper. "'Grease" was the word -- and movie -- with its bad boy/good guy character of Danny Zuko that opened his 5-year-old's eyes in 1978.

"I saw it 27 times that summer."

Those hot summer nights have ceded to a cool summer breeze, balmy tradewinds of "Terri" wafting through theaters. (It opens here on Aug. 5 at the Ritz at the Bourse.)

This could be the one that places the filmmaker's name on the tip of Hollywood's tongue; some fete, considering that it isn't exactly an easy one. "I've never met anyone else named Azazel," he chuckles.

But then, what's in a name? Depends, he says of those divining its true Hebrew derivation: "There are different interpretations," but his parents used the one of Azazel "as the fallen angel," at odds "with the hierarchy of heaven and earth."

This is not exactly the "Teen Angel" they crooned about in "Grease." "When I went to Israel and they heard my name, Israelis flipped out, because there it's like a curse word. In a way," jokes Jacobs, "it was my parents' way of making sure I never ran for public office."

But he is making a run for king of the offbeat with this coming-of-age film, taking on all comers this summer. Recalling his own days as prince of puberty? "There was so much confusion of what is going on inside your body."

But he says he owes much to the way he grew up in a Jewish intellectually charged environment. "The fact is I grew up very wealthy -- not money-wise," but blessed and enriched with the sage advice offered by his parents on what being Jewish meant from a cultural vantage.

Indeed, unlike the movie's vice principal -- with John C. Reilly reeling in his Oscar nod early -- who keeps a trusty if dusty scrapbook of horrors on hand to remind him of his anything-but-yearned-for "Yesterdays," the filmmaker "can't complain about my 'Yesterdays.' "

Not when there's so much of what many movie insiders -- and even outsiders -- expect to be a great future.

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