What it's about: Chris [Jay Duplass] is an ex-con newly released after 20 years in prison. Upon arriving home he finds that his family and friends have all become strangers. The world has dramatically shifted since he was last free as a teenager: the economy, the technology, the social norms. The only person who he has kept a relationship with was his former high school English teacher Carol [Edie Falco], who worked tirelessly to get his sentenced reduced while offering him emotional support from the outside. With Carol's family life on shaky ground, Chris's reintegration into society sparks a chance for a meaningful friendship and possibly something more.
Early on, Outside In keeps many of the narrative specifics fuzzy. We don't immediately know what crime put Chris in prison or exactly what role Carol took to try and get him out. It doesn't completely let on the extent of their relationship right away -- have they been having an emotional affair while he was in prison or were their conversations invested but not romantic? This might be irritating for some but Outside In lets these relationships and contexts develop more naturally over the plot. The slower pace helps the depressed mood of the film really click, as well.
Cons coming back into society isn't a new plot but I like how Outside In approaches the character of Chris. The character has many different physical and emotional markers of still being an adolescent, which makes some sense with the idea that he went to prison at about 17-years-old but I'm sure it is an exaggerated version of reality. His perpetual cowlick, poorly fitted clothes, eating habits [we see him eat pizza, a corn dog, and cereal] are all markers of his character being stuck in that time.
The key though, however, is that it never feels condescending. The film makes it clear that Chris has a lot to do to adjust and that there may be some underlying mental issues at hand, too, but it doesn't overload the sympathy. His situation is sad, but not hopeless.
A lot of the reason the character works is also in the performance from Jay Duplass. Of the Duplass brothers, I've always seen Mark as the better actor -- he certainly has more of a body of work. Jay's most notable role in Amazon's Transparent has been hit-or-miss for me though some of that is how I've responded to the character and not his acting choices. Outside In, though, is definitely his breakout for me.
Duplass plays Chris with a distance, usually either with complete earnestness or complete disaffectedness, and both parts of his personality work together.
Truthfully, though, if I were to choose which Duplass brother I would have thought spent 20 years in prison, I'd probably pick Jay over Mark.
He's matched by the more reliable performer Edie Falco, whose role is just as nuanced and devastating but a little more grounded and relatable. What Falco does so incredibly well throughout the film is act without dialogue. A lot of her best moments are reaction shots in conversations with Chris. She delivers so much emotion and internalized struggle clearly.
Aside from Chris and Carol's central relationship, there are two others that develop over the film well and with some surprises. The more prominent is between Chris and Hildy, Carol's teenage daughter, played by Kaitlyn Dever [Short Term 12, Detroit]. This particular thread could have been where Outside In goes off the rails, with the potential for something very icky and creepy. The film doesn't completely shy away from the complicated implications of their friendship but by fully exploring both characters, their connection and shared emotional isolation is fully understood.
Charles Leggett plays a less central character, but his role as Carol's husband is worth noting. He could be an easy villain, someone who pushes Carol away to Chris. But he's also complex and given a fair and balanced characterization. I found myself feeling for him just as much as Carol or Chris or Hildy and Outside In didn't need to go there.
After loving Humpday and liking Your Sister's Sister, I fell off of Lynn Shelton's career -- I didn't see Touchy Feely or Laggies, though both have had modest acclaim. She's otherwise worked primarily in television and I've seen her work on shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None but I'm just not confident in how much creative stock I can put on these jobs. I am glad that I caught Outside In, however.
The film shows me that Shelton can expand her character driven work into deeper dramatic narratives. Strangely enough, the few beats of comedy in Outside In were the moments that worked the least for me.
Its overall tone and how that worked with the unique setting, the quiet character struggles, and the way plot information flowed naturally as time was spent with the characters is what makes Outside In a sweet, charming, and devastating film.