Outside In opens with the camera looking down on an ex-con, Chris, heading home for the first time in twenty years. Chris (Jay Duplass) sits in the back of a rain-spattered car window, eating a french fry with a dreamy look in his eyes. It’s probably the best thing he’s eaten in a long time. He will soon be delivered to a room filled with people awaiting his return. But there’s only one person he really wants to see: Carol, his old high school teacher, the person who fought hardest for his early release.
Carol is played by Edie Falco, and from the moment we first see her, she radiates goodness, intelligence, longing, and confusion. She’s in as much of a transitional period as Chris. She’s devoted years of her life to disputing Chris’s conviction, and in doing so, has discovered new reserves of intellectual and spiritual energy. She’s also become very close to her former student. She might be in love with him; he’s definitely in love with her. But she’s married, with a teenage daughter. And she’s still teaching at the high school where she first met Chris as an 18-year-old boy. So things are complicated.
Director Lynn Shelton is good with these kinds of emotionally dense scenarios. Her previous films, Hump Day, Your Sister’s Sister, and Laggies, mine the unusual circumstances of her characters for comedy. Outside In is more purely dramatic. There’s heartbreak in the air, from the start, but it’s not clear who will be hurt. Both Carol and Chris quickly realize that they have to redefine their relationship now that Chris is out of prison. Ironically, things between them were easier when Chris was behind bars because their boundaries were defined by the terms of Chris’s incarceration. They also had a shared goal: freeing Chris. But once Chris is out in the world, what brings them together? Are they actually compatible? Should Carol stay in her clearly unhappy marriage? Is this movie actually a bizarro romantic comedy, where instead of the lovers having to overcome obstacles, they have to accept not having obstacles?
Underlying all of this is the sensational fact that Chris has been in prison for twenty years for a murder he didn’t commit. A more conventional film would spend a lot of time excavating the details of the killing and explaining how Chris was convicted and how he got free, but Shelton, who co-wrote the script with Duplass, doesn’t get into these details. There are no flashbacks, although Chris does visit the scene of the crime, and we get a sense of how this haunts him. A few vague conversations offer excuses like “Wrong place, wrong time.” Chris’s brother was also involved in some way, but got off—another situation only generally explained.
I liked that the movie didn’t get bogged down by the weight of Chris’s past, but I would appreciated some hint as to how Chris got mixed up in such a dangerous situation. What was Chris like when he was eighteen years old? Why was Carol so certain that he was innocent? I didn’t have a good sense of the kind of young man he had been and how prison had shaped his personality. Some of this had to do with weaknesses in the script, but there is also the fact that Jay Duplass is not the kind of actor who brings a lot of extra information to a scene. He’s always believable and vulnerable, but his face is not particularly expressive and he’s hard to read. When you compare him to someone like Falco, who makes every line resonate with the choices and compromises that brought her character to a particular point in time, he can’t help but seem flimsy. It feels a little unfair to compare them, since Duplass is relatively new to acting, while Falco is one of the best character actors working in film and TV, but they’re in so many scenes together that comparison is inevitable. Duplass has a lost, ungrounded quality that works well in ensemble roles; I love him as part of the Pfefferman family in Transparent, and he was perfectly cast as a superficial lawyer in Beatriz at Dinner. But I don’t think he can carry a whole movie.
There were parts of Outside In that dragged and wasn’t sure how much that had to do with Duplass’s limitations, the script’s deficiencies, or Shelton’s realistic aesthetic, which sometimes tamps down conflict and doesn’t allow for any flourishes in dialogue or with the camera. The locations and costumes were also boringly (if appropriately) true to life, with Chris wearing the world’s ugliest cargo pants and returning each evening to a yellowed-linoleum kitchen that would generously be described as dingy. But these ugly interiors contrasted with the natural beauty of Snowhomish County, Washington. There are placid gray-blue views of rivers and moss-covered rocks, quiet country roads and fields, peaceful playgrounds shiny with dew, and faded barns at the end of gravel roads.
Carol’s daughter, Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever), an observant teenage girl, has a secret art project that she shows to Chris: she decorates the interior of an abandoned house with lines of construction tape. Her site-specific sculptures bring playfulness to a downtrodden place and also gesture to Hildy’s ambitions, kept mostly under wraps. You get the feeling that she’s not going to stick around Snowhomish County. Chris, though, must stay within county lines according to the terms of his parole. By the end of Outside In, you feel you understand what this means to Chris, and how he’s made his peace with both his freedom and the limits of it.