Director Lynn Shelton’s most successful movies (including Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister and Laggies) have deftly balanced emotionally resonant drama with gentle comedy, but with Outside In she leaves humor behind, telling a story that’s often powerful, even if it sometimes takes itself too seriously. Co-written by Shelton and Jay Duplass, Outside In stars Duplass as Chris, who’s just been released from prison after 20 years and is struggling to readjust to life in his small Pacific Northwest hometown. The reason that Chris spent two decades behind bars is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, but it’s clear from the start that he’s a good guy who was the victim of circumstance.
Chris’ early release came thanks in large part to the efforts of his former high school English teacher Carol (Edie Falco), who worked tirelessly on his behalf to get his sentence reduced. Chris and Carol formed a strong bond over the years that he spent in prison, via regular letters, phone calls and visits, and as soon as Chris is out, he makes it clear to Carol that he’s more than just grateful; he’s in love with her and wants them to be together. Never mind that the much older Carol is married with a teenage daughter—who then develops her own crush on Chris.
There are a lot of uncomfortable moments as Chris, Carol and Carol’s daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) navigate their highly inappropriate feelings, but Shelton never resorts to cheap titillation, and each character’s motivations come from places of genuine emotion, without any ill intent. Chris is insistent but never coercive in his efforts to convince Carol to leave her husband and start a new life with him, and he’s nearly oblivious to Hildy’s interest in him, never taking advantage of the vulnerable young woman. That makes a potentially melodramatic story into a low-key character study, which can be occasionally plodding but allows the audience to discover new layers to its characters over time.
Duplass is a much more subdued actor than his brother Mark (who starred in Shelton’s Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, and is an executive producer here), and Chris is sometimes a little too inscrutable, even when he’s attempting to express his inner passions. But that abashed demeanor makes sense for someone who’s spent more than half his life locked up, and is just starting to relearn how to live as part of society. Falco is more vibrant as a woman who is also relearning how to live in certain ways, having awakened a strong interest in social justice during her work on Chris’ case. The scenes between Falco and Dever, as Carol and Hildy work to reconnect and acknowledge each other’s challenges, are some of the strongest in the movie, and it’s almost a disappointment when the focus shifts back to Chris.
Seattle native Shelton, who’s made most of her movies on her home turf, captures the beauty and isolation of rural Washington state as Chris bicycles across wooded paths and down mostly empty streets, the landscape blanketed in fog and constant dampness. She also captures the dingy, run-down charm of the small town, from the police station in what looks like a trailer to the feed store where Chris eventually finds work. The muted gloom of the town matches Chris’ moods, as well as the tone of the movie, which stays melancholy but hopeful, with the promise of a new start always just on the horizon.