It would be convenient to describe this film as the story of a recently released felon returning to his humble mountain town to mixed reception. However, Lynn Shelton treats the story with an ensemble mindset, making the narrative hook seem only as important as each proceeding conversation demands it to be.
Jay Duplass plays the central character. (I hesitate to use the word protagonist.) He’s just been brought from prison to his old home where a party awaits him. He’s reticent (who wouldn’t be?), but as we enter the house, we see a large group of people celebrating his return after 20 years of incarceration. One woman described what happened to Chris as an injustice, raising multiple questions in the audience’s minds, from why he was in prison to, if he has been exonerated, why he seems so sad about it.
At the party, we meet Carol (Edie Falco) who is recognized for being Chris’s high school teacher and a pivotal part of how he was released. Yet even as we learn that Chris is still on parole and was never exonerated for his conviction, we never really learn the details of Carol’s role in this play either. Leaving these questions hanging is an excellent method of pulling the audience into this conversational meditative drama on the nature of freedom.
The third central character of the film is Hildy, played by the always excellent Kaitlyn Dever, who’s had roles in Detroit, Men Women and Children, The Spectacular Now, Short Term Twelve, and Lynn Shelton’s previous film Laggies. She is an up-and-coming star to watch out for. Hildy is Carol’s daughter, and it is through her eyes that we see the impact of Carol’s past with Chris. While Carol was assisting Chris in prison, Hildy went neglected in a home lacking the love she needed.
Where the film takes these characters never ranges into the unexpected; rather, Shelton gives us the natural outpouring of a moment in time through the emotions and conversations of fully realized characters.
If there is a place for criticism here, it’s in the wider lens of Shelton’s work. Coming out of the mumblecore movement with films like My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday, it’s hard to not see Shelton’s work improving the further she gets from that movement. Her previous films Touchy Feely and Laggies are her most tonally and emotionally satisfying, and both lack the mumblecore standard players.
Outside In features two incredible, nuanced performances from Dever and Falco, with Jay Duplass seeming completely outmatched. He’s one note in a role that required more subtlety, making some of the most intense moments in the film feel lacking. Nevertheless, Shelton delivered an immensely powerful drama that will stick with you long after you leave the theater. When Netflix inevitably distributes the film, make sure to add it to your queue, keeping a box of tissues nearby.