Outside In

Most prison dramas end with a convict happily earning freedom or succumbing to the horrors of the big house. Lynn Shelton’s Outside In reveals that being able to move around without a guard’s hateful stare comes with its own set of challenges.

Mumblecore founding father Jay Duplass (who wrote the script with Shelton) stars as Chris. After a long ride in a car on his way to an awkward welcome home party, Chris is happy to able to breathe fresh air, but life in his hometown leave a lot to be desired.

While he’s on parole, he can’t leave the state, and several of the locals view him with mistrust because he’s a convicted felon. This makes Chris’ life on the outside lonely. While he was in prison, he became close to his former teacher Carol (Edie Falco). She actively campaigned for his release and believed in him when others were happy to let him rot.

Now, she seems to be his only real friend.

“While he’s on parole…this makes Chris’ life on the outside lonely…”

His family has all but forgotten him, and Carol has plenty of responsibilities of her own. She’s still teaching full time, and she’s married to the unresponsive Tom (Charles Leggett). In addition, their teenage daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) keeps them occupied as well.

Having lost much of his youth to prison, Chris is in many ways a teen trapped in an adult’s body. Duplass handles Chris’ lack of maturity flawlessly. When Chris starts hanging out with Hildy, it doesn’t occur to him that spending time with an actual teen could be problematic.

As with her previous movies like Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, Shelton doesn’t go out of her way to make her characters likable. Chris lashes out at friends when frustration and loneliness overwhelm him. It can be off-putting, but it also makes Chris more believable. Chris’ situation is inherently sympathetic, so Shelton and Duplass can let him be a jerk occasionally, even when he starts making romantic gestures to Carol.

“…rural, northwestern settings…gives a uniqueness and authenticity that backlots don’t have.”

It also helps that Shelton doesn’t reveal the nature of the crime that put Chris in prison until later in the movie. She even holds off on flashing back to the incident and instead uses sound cues. She correctly figures that audience curiosity can be as powerful a narrative tool as violence or emotional outbursts.

While Carol has clearly done something noble by supporting Chris’s struggle for freedom, Shelton and Falco give her reasons other than altruism. She seems more content in a classroom or working on a cause than she does at home. In some ways, her efforts for Chris aren’t so helpful now that he’s home, and the conditions that led to his imprisonment haven’t entirely gone away. Then again, Chris is a lot more fun than the sullen, dull Tom.

While Shelton has made a formidable career directing TV episodes and comedy specials, her personal films are still her most rewarding. There’s something appealing about stories that are clearly set somewhere other than New York and Los Angeles. The rural, northwestern setting of her films gives them a uniqueness and authenticity that backlots don’t have.

When you’re dealing with uncomfortable emotions, keeping things real is essential. Nobody wants to watch a movie where the yelling seems like an acting class instead of a story.

Outside In (2017) Directed by Lynn Shelton. Written by Jay Duplass and Lynn Shelton. Starring Jay Duplass, Edie Falco, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Schwartz, and Charles Leggett.

Rating 8/10

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