Film Review: Outside In

Two finely faceted performances add luster—even a bit of sparkle—to this intimate look at the apparently dull lives of an immature ex-con and the woman who helped gain his freedom.
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At first it seems as if Chris (Jay Duplass) is mentally challenged, as if there’s something not quite right about this young man. And of course that’s true: He has spent 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and he was only 18 upon being sent away—an age when he still felt like a teenager but was expected to act like an adult. Unfortunately, Chris still has the same feelings and meets the same expectations when he returns to his hometown, Granite Falls, Washington, a small, backwater of a place that is also frozen in time. The only person Chris wants to see is Carol (Eddie Falco), his former high-school teacher and the woman who was instrumental in getting him out of prison.

It’s an odd and intimate setup for a movie, even a small movie like this one, and it’s immediately clear that although the script (by director Lynn Shelton and star Jay Duplass) won’t have much action, it will have a strong dramatic punch in the slow reveal of how these characters react to the emotional upheavals they bring on themselves. Yes, indeed, a lot can go on in those small backwater towns.

When Chris gets sprung, almost the entire town turns out to welcome him home, and to commiserate with him for being locked away for 20 years to pay for a crime (never fully detailed) he did not commit. But Chris is repelled by all the attention, for all he wants to do is move in with his younger brother Ted (Ben Schwartz) and ride around town on his bicycle. No, he can’t go out for a beer, as he keeps telling everyone, because he’s on parole. As far as anyone knows, Chris is focused on finding a job and getting a start on the rest of his life, but in his mind it’s much more urgent that he connect with Carol—who was called Mrs. Beasley when she taught him in high school.

Carol began to loom large in Chris’s life only after he was sentenced to prison and she became his lifeline to the world, supervising the completion of his education and taking on the legal work that would eventually prove his innocence. All of this evidently involved lots of long, confessional phone calls that led Chris to mistakes Carol’s sincere empathy as, well, something more. She certainly sensed his feelings early on, but she was—and is—in no position to encourage them, for Carol has a husband (an insensitive lout played by Charles Leggett), and a troubled, teenage daughter, Hildy (the wonderful Kaitlyn Dever).

As noted, not much actually happens in Outside In, but the very real dramatic tension makes up for that as the leading characters work out their varying degrees of angst. Hildy’s emotional turmoil would be recognizable to most girls her age, but the accidental relationship she develops with the needy Chris tests her compassion—for him, for her mother and for herself—in unique ways. And, speaking of unique, Chris gets a jolt of adulthood when it begins to dawn on him that he has positioned himself between mother and daughter and realizes he’ll have to hurt one of them.

Both Duplass and Dever handle their roles with exceptional sensitivity, but it is Edie Falco who goes through the biggest character growth and transformation. Her character faces the deepest despair—first, for being in a loveless marriage that has almost, but not quite, destroyed her ability to love and respect herself. And she also must come to that place where she recognizes a duty to respond, carefully, wisely and lovingly, to the fragile needs of the young man who has inappropriately fallen in love with her and, as well, to the needs of her hurt and confused daughter. In other words, Carol has to be the adult in the room—and no one can do that better than Edie Falco.

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