Film Review – Outside In
I am always excited when a new Lynn Shelton movie comes out. My first exposure to her work was in 2011 with Your Sister’s Sister, and I was really pleased by its humor and kindness. (I am reminded by writing that sentence that I need to buy a physical copy that movie STAT. I just learned the other day that you cannot legally stream Murder She Wrote on any platform available to my Roku, and it’s a good thing I already own the DVD set. If you love it, buy it, or it may disappear down the rabbit hole of licensing rights negotiations. AND YOU MAY NEVER SEE IT AGAIN. RANT OVER.) Shelton’s been doing a lot of television, which is great because a gal’s gotta work, but I enjoy her films more. Television (or whatever you want to call it these days) is great, but directors are usually brought on for individual episodes, and there is not much room for them to shake up the formula. Shelton’s films have a distinct point of view and sense of place that sets her apart from the pack. I don’t know that every film of hers works as well as Your Sister’s Sister, but in a movie landscape that feels ever more homogenous, it’s a treat to watch someone work through ideas and try new things.
Her latest film, Outside In, is a drama about a recently unincarcerated (that is not a word according to my word processing software, but as a prison abolitionist I find that most words describing those who have left prison to be offensive and dehumanizing) fellow named Chris (Jay Duplass) who has been released after 20 years. He did not actually commit the crime in question but was there when it went down and sentenced under mandatory minimum laws that give no leniency due to circumstances. At 38, he is on his own for the first time as an adult, and comes back home to rural Washington State to live with his brother Ted (a very restrained Ben Schwartz.) He hopes to connect in person with his former high school teacher Carol (Edie Falco) who was instrumental in helping him gain his early release. He is, in fact, in love with her and dreams of a life together. Carol certainly has feelings for him, but she also has responsibilities toward her husband and teenage daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) that she must sort through before she can figure out what she really wants.
What this movie is about, and what I find to be the subtext of most of Shelton’s films, is how we connect to other people and what we have to do to keep those ties strong. Carol’s relationships are with her husband, Chris, and Hildy. Each connection waxes and wanes through time, and has the possibility of disintegrating if not carefully maintained. Chris, on the other hand, is desperately trying to create any sense of belonging at all and holds on tight to the one person perceives to be in his corner. The film is beautifully acted, although I have read some comments about Jay Duplass being too restrained for the role. I don’t think the issue is his acting ability, I think it’s the fact that there is nothing in the script to ground him to the experience of being incarcerated. Duplass and Shelton share a writing credit, and I feel like they cheated a little bit with Chris’s prison background. There are a few nods to it in his behavior, but his actions would have been equally plausible if he had been on a twenty-year long monastic retreat. There is a difference, and I think the lack of that hurts the tone of the film a bit.
There are also a few pacing issues. Chris rides his bike around A LOT. That gives us a chance to see the town, and Shelton is really good at showing what Washington feels like outside of the I-5 corridor, but it slows down what is already a somewhat meandering character study. The camera work is also somewhat static, which is mostly effective when showing outdoor scenes or buildings. It’s less interesting when people are talking, and contributes to the slowness of the film. This is not a boring movie, but it takes a little more patience than maybe I had to give at times.
It’s rare to see those who have been to prison treated with kindness in any media portrayal, and while this is not Shelton’s best film, it is well worth watching. I was also moved by Carol’s story and her struggle to decide which relationships in her life needed shoring up, which ones needed to change, and which ones needed to end. Yeah, I’m a middle-aged lady and maybe her arc resonated more with me because of that, but I thought her character was well written and Edie Falco is really good here. There are a lot of different ways to love other people, but most films gloss over that rather than deal with any complexities of emotion. As always, I can’t wait to see what Shelton does next.