Lynn Shelton’s Outside In is a luminous masterwork. Long the keen-eyed documenter of ordinary life in the uppermost corners of the Pacific Northwest, Shelton achieves nothing less than brilliance with this achingly beautiful story of lonely, vulnerable people and their tentative but open-hearted reaching for connection.
In Outside In’s lyrical opening scene, we see newly freed ex-con Chris (Jay Duplass) as he gazes up at the sky through a rain-spattered car window. He munches on French fries and watches the verdant landscape roll by, a luxury for him that he visibly, fully savors. He will later declare that all he wants is “a simple life,” and it’s clear that he embraces just that, relishing corn dogs, bike rides, and “a hike, once in a while on the weekends.” But simplicity will elude him for a while, because Chris actually wants more than he can have. We soon learn that he is deeply in love with a married woman, his former high school teacher Carol Beasley (Edie Falco), whose work on his behalf freed him from prison after twenty years of an unjust sentence. The feeling, it turns out, is mutual, but Carol must keep him at arm’s length as she attempts to salvage her relationship with her uncommunicative boor of a husband and mend fences with her alienated teen daughter.
Things grow more complicated for Chris and Carol, as Chris must also confront family and friends with whom his former bonds have been fractured, and Carol must discover what she really wants. In any other context, this sort of family-and-romantic drama might feel familiar or even tired, but because Chris is on parole, his simplest decisions and actions—and those of the people around him—are fraught with palpable risk. The result of all this complexity is a taut drama that reminds us of how intensely at-risk so many people are—vulnerable people without safety nets, for whom one moment of bad luck, one unchecked natural impulse can undo all hopes of a better life, or even just a simple one.
Two things cause this film to really sing. One is Shelton’s attention to the beauty of the ordinary. Nathan M. Miller’s cinematography makes the worn-down, mossy buildings of Granite Falls, Washington, look perfect, as they might look through the eyes of someone long denied ordinary sights that unincarcerated people too often take for granted. And, as in Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, stunning shots of the natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest alternate with interior shots and scenes. Shelton’s films’ loving attention to both built and natural environments are among the most pleasurable hallmarks of her work, grounding her films in an authentic and even reverent sense of place.
The other is the performances. Shelton has a talent for extracting genuine, raw, gentle, and truthful performances from her actor collaborators. It’s a joy to watch Edie Falco’s face whenever she sees Chris in the earliest scenes of the film. Carol does her best to maintain appropriate boundaries (and reassert them, when necessary) between herself and Chris, as a responsible adult would, but her face betrays her every time. Falco is radiant: light pours from her whenever she sees the man she loves. Duplass, too, hides nothing. His eyes sparkle whenever Carol is near. Watching the two together feels like a gift.
There are virtually no false moves in this film. I was momentarily puzzled by the frequency with which beautiful young women come on to Chris—a scruffy, unemployed ex-con who is only modestly handsome. I wondered briefly if this was wish-fulfillment on the part of Duplass, who also co-wrote the film. But each potentially eyebrow-raising moment like this is undercut by the full and honest humanity of Chris’ responses, which frequently leave him embarrassed and vulnerable. Ultimately, these scenes are there not to stroke an actor-writer’s ego, but to show us how ill-at-ease Chris is in the company of others, especially women, who have been nearly absent from his life for twenty years.
The themes and execution of Shelton’s strongest films—Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister—presaged the power that she achieves with Outside In. Humpday was an absorbing dramedy about the risks and anxieties that grow out of various kinds of intimacy, especially for men. Your Sister’s Sister showed how social occasions can seem like a gauntlet for those suffering loss, and it suggested how broken relationships can be redeemed through effort, patience, and the passage of time. Outside In melds all of these ideas into a wise, meditative, and beautiful poem about the way reaching out to one another can heal pain and make hope possible.