Outside In screened its U.S. Premiere at SXSW Film Festival in the “Narrative Spotlight.” Directed by Lynn Shelton, written by Lynn Shelton and Jay Duplass, the quiet drama/romance uplifts. It encourages kindness and compassion. Indeed, we enjoy following how the protagonists realistically navigate transformative stages in their lives. Also, Shelton and Duplass emphasize that when bonds of friendship solidify during a crisis, the foundation created may lead toward evolving love and inner freedom.
On a literal level, the development of Shelton’s and Duplass’ story about Chris’s (Duplass) and his former teacher Carol’s (Edie Falco), budding romance appears lightweight. Railroaded for a crime, Chris serves out a twenty-year prison sentence. With strong advocacy from Carol who visited and fought for him throughout, Chris gains his freedom. However, like Rip Van Winkle, out of place and time, Chris must re-establish his identity. And he must learn to release his new self and gain a presence in his small town home base. But he has little. So he must recharge, find a job, make meaning and enjoy freedom, relying on his inner reserves with few friends.
Because he stays with his younger brother Ted (Ben Schwartz is perfectly annoying), whose scattershot behaviors indicate an obliviousness and obtuse selfishness, Chris faces isolation. Alienated from his past life and unable to easily bridge the fellowship of a small town community, he turns to his best friend Carol. Indeed, during their interactions over the years, they’ve grown emotionally intimate. Chris relies on her stalwart encouragement. And he has grown to love her, fine for prison, not for the reality of his new situation.
For Carol loyal to her failing marriage and her daughter, Chris’s admission of love seems flattering but untenable. Problematically, together they’ve forged an unparalleled connection, ineffable, spiritual, vital. Carol’s unity and excitement with her husband have long diminished. Even when she attempts to revive it, his exhaustion, and perhaps underlying resentment of her interest in advocacy negates her. Their relationship is bereft of meaning. Their only commonality and conjunction remain their teenage daughter, Hildy (the fine Kaitlyn Dever). However, Kaitlyn faces growing pains and troubles. These she confides to Chris. But smitten with Carol, Chris turns down any relationship with Hildy beyond friendship. Besides, she is underage.
When Carol relents and they decide to extend their relationship to another level, the experiment blows up and Carol and Chris must make decisions. By the conclusion, both spiral out into a new place within themselves and possibly with each other. The uncertainty is refreshing and anything but pat and contrived. This benefit enhances the realism and the tenderness of their relationship with which we identify.
The title symbolizes Chris’ and Carol’s movement from the nature of the imprisonments both experience. When Chris gains his freedom, he triggers that impulse in Carol to confront her failed marriage which imprisoned her. His imprisonment fostered the knowledge that he wants Carol to reciprocate his love. If he had never known prison, he never would have known Carol. The time there with her during their visits enabled him to strengthen his inner being so he realizes he can love.
In an ironic reversal, their psyches transform when they consummate their relationship to open up to each other more fully beyond their friendship in prison. Now, on the outside, in life’s reality, the love blossoms. Additionally, both have moved from the outside, the literal, into themselves and each other to feel something new. This movement releases their souls so that they can recognize the potential for the power of love to give them the courage to change.
With that recognition and Chris’ help, Carole frees herself to seek a joyful, fulfilling purpose for her life beyond teaching. With his love, she has the power to leave her husband and a job that does not fulfill her. Chris, renewed, will leave the town when he is ready, and perhaps relocate. Though unclear and left uncertain about the finality of their being together, their love will continue. However, Carol does not intend to rush from divorce into another failed marriage. Instead, with her guidance and his guidance, both will move in the positive direction their unity has inspired.
This is a dynamite film. The strengths of Outside In speak to the superb, spot-on acting skills of Falco and Duplass. Shelton’s precise direction and the tentative approach all take intricately weave the relationships with authenticity. Also, Shelton’s detailed care shepherds us through the extreme difficulties Chris must confront to realign himself to the present. She does this with balance. Additionally, she manages not to smack us with the hyperbole of “the prison guy who has a tough time when he gets out.”
Many details she selects to reveal this are striking, yet thoughtfully subtle. For example, Chris rides his old bike (not a sleek racer), everywhere. It is a poignant, symbolic reminder of where he came from, how far he has come, and how far he must still go. Shelton scatters heartbreaking details like the bike throughout. From his paltry living conditions (he moves to the garage to get away from his brother’s lifestyle) to his job hunting, to his shy interactions with others, we get it. In contrast, his interactions with Carol speak to warmth, closeness, and enrichment. We feel for him. Assuredly, we joy over Carol’s concern and care for him.
The stark, flat, white lighting and uncomplicated cinematography which focuses on the shabby life details of the brothers, enhances the realism and adds to the actors’ honest, winning portrayals. The intricate set dressing, props, outfits and the location shots speak cultural perfection. The design elements and entire film coherence move us to feel hope for Chris and Carol. We gradually engage and become hooked. And we want both to succeed in their forward motion wherever/whatever. For we know it will be better than what was.
I highly recommend this film. Its intense action resides within wonderful performances. The entire cast is great, with special kudos to Falco and Duplass. The film enjoys limited release on 30 March. Look for it.