Though hewing to the small-scale seriocomedy of her prior big-screen work, Lynn Shelton’s first feature since 2014’s “Laggies” (despite a lot of TV work in between) expands on the modest appeal of those earlier films to deliver a personal best to date. “Outside In” stars co-writer Jay Duplass as an ex-con returning after 20 years’ lockup to his hometown, where the only person he’s really eager to see is his old high school English teacher, played by a luminous Edie Falco.
Their awkward, inappropriate quasi-romance is the crux here, but Shelton and Duplass have etched a number of other character relationships to ultimately poignant effect as well. Critical support and potential awards buzz for the leads could boost “Outside” into above-average theatrical performance for its latter-day Amerindie ilk.
A stupid escapade in which he wound up taking the fall for two pals — one of them younger brother Ted (Ben Schwartz) — sent Chris Connelly (Duplass) into the state pen at age 18, where he stayed for the next two decades. He might well be there still if not for Mrs. Beasley, AKA Carol (Falco), who began by continuing his education long-distance behind bars, then became a determined petitioner for his release. Their communication became his lifeline in more ways than one, to the point where psychological intimacies shared made them interdependent — somewhat alleviating Carol’s interim marital woes, while also raising perhaps unrealistic expectations from Chris as to what their “relationship” might comprise upon his release.
He certainly doesn’t have much else to come back to in the perpetually rainy, economically depressed hamlet of Granite Falls, Wa. His long-ago friends are now neck-deep in adult commitments, which can’t be said for Ted, who seems to have done nothing with his life, and whose party pad is an unfortunate sole housing option for a big brother on parole. Nor are employment options plentiful for a newly released jailbird with no real-world work experience. Chris may simply have been a hapless bystander to a shooting death… but he’s still always going to be the guy who served the sentence for it, and hence must check the “felon” box on job applications.
The palpable thrill he and Carol take in reuniting is soon compromised by their very different roles on the “outside,” where she still must maintain a certain propriety as his former teacher. Then there’s the matter that she’s a wife and mother. Trying to integrate Chris more innocuously into her “family life,” she finds somewhat angsty teen daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) adopting this new “friend” almost more than is comfortable. Only Hildy recognizes him for what he is: a teen misfit like herself, albeit one whose adolescence stalled when he went behind bars. But there’s no hope of a welcome from gruff husband Tom (Charles Leggett). Indeed, the arrival of keeningly affectionate, open Chris only underlines the extent to which Carol’s marriage has become a loveless obligation beyond salvage.
Not much “happens” here, limited by the characters’ milieu and means. (Our hero often has little to do but wheel around town on his rusty old bicycle.) Yet “Outside In” feels eventful, even somewhat suspenseful, as we worry that being around so many screwups of one sort or another might endanger Chris’ still-fragile freedom. Shelton and Duplass lend every significant character a sense of uncontrived evolution, leading to a finale that is stirring precisely for being so tentative and reserved.
Duplass is perfect as the guileless hero, whose naive “simplicity” after 20 years’ forced absence might be hard to swallow in a less surefooted performance. Falco makes Carol’s kindness and frustration palpable at every moment, turning ordinary emotions into a kind of near-poetical self-exposure. Dever of “Detroit” is also very good in the third major role, with support turns expertly handled.
There’s a muted lyricism to the way DP Nathan M. Miller and Shelton’s other principal collaborators capture the soggy, depressed and somewhat decrepit beauty of the Pacific Northwest setting. Having pop iconoclast Andrew Bird as composer was an inspired choice, as his largely acoustic score adds some playful edges to the overall texture.