2018, NR, 109 min. Directed by Lynn Shelton. Starring Edie Falco, Jay Duplass, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Schwartz.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 25, 2018
Outside In opens with a middle-aged man in the passenger seat of a truck, looking dreamily out the window. That dreamy feeling is catching: In under a minute I was Googling the gorgeous, wooded location – Snohomish County, Wash. – and wondering how fast I could get there. But Chris (Duplass) has a different reason for ogling the scenery. It’s his first look at it in 20 years.
Chris is returning home after two decades in prison, an early release due in large part to the efforts of Carol (Falco, standout as usual), his former high school teacher turned pen pal turned legal advocate. Chris owes her his freedom; Carol owes him a debt of gratitude for turning her on to a cause – ending mandatory minimums – that’s given her new purpose. While Chris was behind bars, they forged an intense emotional connection. Now that he’s free, Carol has to figure out where he fits into her life on the outside, which includes a job, a husband, a daughter.
I forget the husband’s name – he’s barely a blip in the story, which is a problem – but Carol’s 16-year-old daughter, Hildy (Dever), does emerge as a central character. And a point of friction, too, as Hildy strikes up her own friendship with Chris, in a narrative detour that dips a toe into transgression (grown men aren’t really supposed to hang out with teenagers) but doesn’t push it. That’s by design. Director Lynn Shelton, a regular and reliable pillar of indie cinema for a decade now with films like Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, and her co-writer/star Duplass don’t push, period. One of the great strengths of their sensitive, contained script is that it respects the audience to piece together context without a giant info dump, and to intuit an emotion without having it broadcast via monologue. And one of the frustrations of the script’s restraint is that it steers so wide of melodrama it sometimes bypasses the drama altogether – see: Carol’s strained marriage to whatshisface – or, oppositely, creates a sense of suspense that doesn’t pay off, as in the slow-drip reveal of Chris’ long-ago crime.
But what keeps Outside In interesting throughout is the nuanced work of its so very watchable leads – especially Duplass, who spent the first half of his career behind the camera writing, directing, and producing film and TV with his brother Mark. That he’s terrific in front of the camera, too, isn’t exactly a revelation if you’ve been tracking him on Amazon’s Transparent, but the ache and the guilelessness he brings to the role of Chris are hard proof he’s no one-hit wonder.