Deep cut time! Some 10 or 15 minutes into director/co-writer Nate Strayer’s thriller Outlier, I was reminded of the 1999 forgotten (never known?) drama The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. Getting into specifics about how or why would spoil things, but if anyone recalls that Elijah Wood vehicle, then the mystery at the heart of Strayer and Jona Doug’s script won’t be a surprise. But, it should say something about the story’s originality that an obscure film from decades ago is the only feature to compare it to. Mind you, in tone and style, the two titles couldn’t be more different, so without further ado, let’s dive right in.
Olivia (Jessica Denton) is constantly being abused by her boyfriend James (Logan Fleisher). After one particularly vicious fight at a gas station, Thomas (Thomas Cheslek), who does not know either of them, steps in to help. This gives Olivia the strength to leave James, but with nowhere else to go, she stays the night at her savior’s lakeside home. Olivia’s fear of James keeps her there for a few days, though she feels like a burden to the kindly Thomas.
But, Olivia has strange dreams every night and hears Thomas talking to someone, despite them being the only two in the house. Plus, each time Olivia brings up trying to leave, Thomas always has some rationale for why she should stay. So, did Olivia get of the frying pan only to enter the fire? Or is Thomas sincerely trying to help, and the rest is just her mind playing tricks after years of abuse?
“…each time Olivia brings up trying to leave, Thomas always has some rationale for why she should stay.”
Outlier is fairly minimalist from conceit to production design. There are maybe six speaking roles altogether, with the focus on Olivia and Thomas, of course. The primary setting, Thomas’ house, is straightforward, with no distinctive bells or whistles. Not only is this a good way to keep costs down for an independent feature, but it also means that the story must remain focused so that all the emotions being pulled feel earned and authentic. In that regard, Strayer pulls off the hat trick, as the narrative of Olivia becoming more assertive and demanding to escape imprisonment (real or the walls of her meek mind) is compelling.
But, this stripped-down approach does leave questions hanging. Thomas is a software engineer, but how his software does certain things is never adequately explained. For that matter, neither is how it generates revenue for the well-off man. I realize those sentences might not make any sense as to their relevance unless you’ve already seen the picture, but they are tantalizing threads that are left dangling and never fully realized.
As she is so singularly the focus, Olivia needs to be believable as a traumatized victim, a confused woman on the mend, and eventually a badass. Denton is wonderful as the weak-willed woman, and the audience understands every decision she makes and sides with the character each time. Cheslek has a complicated role, as he must be charming and sincere enough that viewers believe he wants to help. At the same time, he needs to just off-putting enough, and ever so slightly menacing, that him being delusional is an absolute possibility. The actor pulls it off quite well, with a calm, level speaking voice that never suggests his (possible) ulterior motives. Though only in the first few minutes, Fleisher as James makes quite the impression, as he is easy to hate and utterly loathsome.
Outlier is an engaging tale of one woman overcoming abuse that will resonate with anyone who’s been in similar unfortunate circumstances. While certain story pieces are left up in the air, which adds a bit of unintentional confusion, the characters are well-written, the cast brings their A-game, and the finale is great. While not perfect, the themes and message Strayer is reaching for in his feature-length debut enure it is worth checking out.
"…Denton is wonderful..."