Twenty-four hours pass quickly for a female jailbird escaping from temporary leave in tyro helmer Bogdan George Apetri’s “Outbound.” Strong on character if occasionally tripped up by gaps in credibility, the pic is a well-made drama boasting an especially good, downbeat finale. Apetri, one of the co-producers on Sundance prizewinner “3 Backyards,” nails the strong-willed convict’s sense of drive, and the story, taken from a piece co-written by Cristian Mungiu a decade ago, remains intriguing even when it periodically feels overstretched. “Outbound” is a natural fest item likely to benefit from the attention paid to new Romanian cinema.
The narrative is divided into three chapters, opening with Matilda (Ana Ularu) exiting prison on a 24-hour pass to attend her mother’s funeral. Outside the slammer, she has a rendezvous with a trucker (Ion Sapdaru). The plan is for her to collect the cash to pay him off for driving her to the port city of Constanta, where she’ll be smuggled out of the country. First stop is the home of her brother Andrei (Andi Vasluianu), but he and his wife, Lavinia (Ioana Flora), are less than thrilled to see her.
Part of the pic’s success is its understanding that not every background detail needs an explanation, relying on the strength of the dialogue to make relationships clear when specifics remain unspoken. From Lavinia’s barbs, auds understand Matilda once took advantage of her brother, and the family’s cumulative hostility drives her away empty-handed.
Next up is Matilda’s ex-pimp and sleazy former lover, Paul (Mimi Branescu), who reneges on an early deal to give her money. Paul also informs her he’s placed their 8-year-old son, Toma (Timotei Duma), in an orphanage, necessitating another stop on Matilda’s way to her Constanta appointment.
The finite time period keeps things tight, though it’s the small interactions, ones that don’t necessarily drive the action forward, that prove the most rewarding. Andrei’s reflexive familial warmth, in contrast to his wife’s antagonism, neatly reveals the roots of the siblings’ relationship, and a tense sequence in a carwash between Matilda and Selena (Ingrid Bisu), Paul’s latest and youngest prostitute, makes clear what the runaway con’s life was like before her arrest.
Ularu’s intense steely glare could use some modulation, but her near-constant physical tension captures Matilda’s foolhardy defiance and misguided determination. Ace d.p. Marius Panduru (“Police, Adjective”) creates admirably controlled visuals, at once rigidly observant and yet never neutral. However, it may be time to think twice about yet another setup where the camera trails people from behind, just inches from their shoulders.