‘Outside In’ Toronto Review: Edie Falco, Jay Duplass Shine in Quiet Drama

In director Lynn Shelton’s story of a man struggling to adjust to life after prison, the comedy is toned down but the naturalism and understatement remain

Big things happen in Lynn Shelton’s films, but they happen in the quietest of ways — and “Outside In,” which premiered on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, is no exception. While it’s more dramatic and less comic than most of Shelton’s previous work, it’s another fine example of the writer-director cloaking moments of import in understatement and naturalism.

The film stars Jay Duplass, who co-wrote the screenplay with Shelton, as Chris, a convicted murderer who’s released from prison after 20 years, largely with the help of his former high school teacher, Carol, played by Edie Falco. Their twice-weekly phone conversations have created a deep bond that turns romantic in Chris despite the age difference. Carol, stuck in a stalled marriage, is flattered by the attention but skeptical of the idea that anything could actually happen.

And to complicate matters further, Carol’s teenage daughter Hilde, played by Kaitlyn Dever, also becomes enamored of Chris, in an age-inappropriate relationship in the other direction.

Messy entanglements have been a staple in Shelton’s movies for years, including “Humpday,” “Laggies” and “My Sister’s Sister,” though more often than not she plays them for gently uncomfortable laughs. But “Outside In” is a real drama with only the lightest tinge of comedy; the plight of three people, adrift in different ways and looking for connections that may well be unwise, carries with it a uneasy sense of dread that one or all of them are headed for a fall.

In a post-screening Q&A at the Ryerson Theatre, Duplass talked about interviewing ex-cons who’d recently ended long prison terms, and finding, he said, that with them “every interaction was so intense and raw and fraught with danger and potential.” He gives his scenes that sense of a man who’s so on edge that a welcome home party is nearly unbearable and a personal interaction with anyone other than his old teacher is painful.

Falco is devastating as a woman who is all heart and no glam, fighting the one thing that makes her feel fulfilled. And Dever adds another terrific performance in her young career as the high schooler who has trouble communicating because, she says at one point, “I’m a teenage girl. That’s what we do.”

The film circles the characters as they circle each other, connecting and pulling back and making foolish decisions one and all. But where some of the situations could be played for melodrama, that’s not Shelton’s game — percent, for that matter, Duplass’ either.

Instead, this is life and these are people. They do some dumb stuff, some smart stuff, some inexplicable stuff. Big and little things happen, uneasy accommodations are made, and whatever quiet peace these people negotiate seems fully earned, by the characters and by the filmmakers.