Lynn Shelton’s Outside In opens on a shot of Chris (Jay Duplass) in deep repose in the passenger seat of a pickup truck, gazing out a rain-flecked window while savoring a package of french fries. His gratification is so magnificent that you’d think he hadn’t eaten fast food in decades. And indeed that may very well be the case, as Chris, who’s approaching 40, has just been released from prison, where he’s been locked up for the last 20 years. But the man’s contentment, so palpable in the film’s opening scene, comes to an abrupt end when he arrives at his brother Ted’s (Ben Schwartz) house and to a welcome-home party where he’s instantly faced with all the friends and relatives he once knew who’ve grown up and left him behind.
There’s only one person who Chris seems truly happy to see: his old high school English teacher, Carol (Edie Falco), who, unlike everyone else, maintained contact with her former student throughout his long internment, even helping to secure his early release. Anxious and over-eager, Chris seems practically giddy in her presence. It’s obvious that he isn’t simply pleased to see someone who’s provided such steady emotional support to him over the years; rather, he’s head over heels in love. Carol clearly senses the vigor of Chris’s feelings, but she seems unsure of her own. Does she love him back? And if so, is she willing to act on it, to leave her cold, uncommunicative lug of a husband, Tom (Charles Leggett), and put her emotionally distant teenage daughter, Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever), through the turmoil of a separation?
Shelton’s film ultimately answers these questions, though often not in the ways one might expect. The screenplay, co-written by Shelton and Duplass, allows the knotty complexities of Chris and Carol’s feelings—their ambivalence and doubt as well as their passion and desire—to guide the narrative. After being slightly rebuffed by Carol, Chris begins to strike up a friendship with Hildy, and while this might have seem contrived in a different sort of film—a cynical attempt to manufacture tension between Carol and Chris—here it feels perfectly natural, an organic outgrowth of Chris’s dogged affection for Carol as well as a sideways opportunity for Hildy to reconnect with her mom.
Despite some perceptive touches which evoke Chris’s difficulty transitioning back into the modern world—his discomfort with smartphones, his use of dated slang like “rad”—Outside In isn’t totally convincing as a depiction of an ex-convict’s life after incarceration. Chris’s prison experience is only lightly sketched, and Duplass’s soulful but slightly muted performance never quite captures the simmering rage we might expect from a man who’s spent the majority of his life locked up for a crime he wasn’t really responsible for. But Shelton is less interested in depicting the harsh realities of post-incarceration life in America than in using Chris’s struggles in adjusting to life on the outside as a means for a broader exploration of liberty and autonomy.
Outside In’s musty, gray visuals evoke both the oppressively soggy climate of the Pacific Northwest and the stultifying limits placed on its characters’ lives. Those socially constructed limitations can be read all over Falco’s face. When her striking blue eyes light up, they seem to pierce right through the dreary monotony of Carol’s stifling small-town existence. What does it mean to be free when you can’t lead the life you want? Shelton carefully observes Chris and Carol as they grapple with this essential question, and her film firmly resists supplying them easy, you-can-have-it-all answers. Sometimes being truly free means giving up some of the things you care for most deeply.