Lynn Shelton is a bit like a third Duplass sibling. After all, the indie director gained her first real mainstream notice directing Mark Duplass in 2009’s awkward sex comedy Humpday then 2011’s more-polished-but-no-less-awkward Your Sister’s Sister. Now, with her latest film, the modest and achingly poignant Outside In, Shelton has cast Mark’s older brother Jay (who also shared writing credits on the movie with her and is best known as an actor for Transparent). Shelton may not be as prolific as the Duplasses (I’m not sure anyone could be – they seem to churn out movies in their sleep), but her work has steadily gotten more assured and quietly powerful. Her continued partnership with the brothers is a tonic for anyone who cares about keeping the Sundance-of-the-‘90s spirit alive.
Outside In is the quiet tale of a 40-year-old ex-con named Chris (Duplass), who’s just been released from prison after 20 years. And the story focuses on the emotional difficulties he has navigating the outside world, from being able to pee without someone watching him to finding a job to figuring out how texting works. Early on, it’s implied that Chris didn’t commit the crime he was sent to jail for. He was simply a dumb young kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, unwilling to narc on a friend. Chris owes his long-overdue freedom to Carol (Edie Falco), a former teacher of his who worked tirelessly to win him an early parole. Although she jokes that she’s nearly old enough to be his mother, Chris is in love with Carol. But Carol is married — unhappily, but still.
Set in rainy, small-town Washington state, Outside In feels slightly familiar. It’s an intimate, closely observed hard-luck tale steeped in blue-collar authenticity punctuated by twangy, maudlin guitar notes on the soundtrack. You know the type. But what elevates this lovely film above the run of the mill is Falco’s heartbreaking, note-perfect performance. She’s phenomenal. Torn between her stick-it-out sense of duty to her loveless marriage and Chris, who sees her in a generous, glowing light at a time in her life when she’s feeling invisible, Falco’s Carol wrestles with the forbidden romance she keeps hoping will go away. But, of course, it won’t. Outside In may be a little too quiet and earnest for some. But it feels true, and its ending feels earned and just right. The best compliment I can give it is that it feels like a long-lost Raymond Carver story. B+