Lynn Shelton’s “Outside In” is proof that a movie about an ex-con, a bad marriage, and a confused teenager need not traffic in the easy waters of violence and sex to create plenty of emotional tension.
The Seattle-based filmmaker’s latest serious-funny exploration of boundaries and insecurities — centered on a newly released prisoner (Jay Duplass) and the woman (Edie Falco) who secured his freedom — is rather a plea for observation and understanding, and the patience it may take to achieve these human gifts when the risk of mistake is ever-present. Once more taking full advantage of the Pacific Northwest’s bracing climate as a sort of emotional cloud cover for warmth-seeking souls, Shelton’s touching seventh feature makes for a welcome return to personalized indie filmmaking after many lucrative years as a guest director in television.
Duplass plays Chris, who in the film’s opening moments is as a car passenger nervously anticipating returning to his rural hometown of Granite Falls, Washington, after two decades in prison. He’s relieved to just take up garage space in the modest home of his brother Tom (Ben Schwartz, “Parks and Recreation”), whose lack of visitation over the years is a source of estrangement between them. Chris is considerably more excited, however, about reconnecting with his high school teacher Carol (Falco).
That’s partly to do with the fact that what led to his parole was Carol’s unswerving dedication to his case, a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time situation when Chris was a reckless 18-year-old. But it’s also because Carol’s frequent, compassionate communication with him during his time behind bars was the balm that got him through it. Meeting in her car in a restaurant parking lot, Carol barely has time to happily process seeing her old student free again when Chris earnestly declares his love for her. She quickly bats that idea away — she’s married, with a teenage daughter — but joking with a colleague about it the next day, it’s obvious a seed has been planted.
The truth about Carol’s fervid advocacy for Chris is that it ultimately exposed her own domestically tinged confinement: her husband Tom (Charles Leggett) is a tight-lipped sourpuss dismissive of her work on behalf of Chris (which she wants to continue doing for other inmates), and she’s on the barest of speaking terms with her moody daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever, “Detroit”).
“Outside In” takes a measured view of the awkward discontent that keeps Carol and Chris from being all they could be for each other as they navigate what it is they are. For a good while Shelton — who wrote the film with Duplass — is satisfied just playing around with dynamics: how Chris, still a stunted adolescent in many ways and not entirely comfortable in big groups, finds a connection with Hildy; and how Carol gradually accepts that her life doesn’t have to be a sacrifice with no reward.
Needless to say, this kind of thing wouldn’t work if its leads didn’t have chemistry, and Duplass and Falco do a wonderful job keeping up our hopes for them as we fear the slightest dip in the outlook for their lives, whether together or apart. Duplass is a good fit for Chris: he refuses to overplay what would be clear-cut sensitivities in a man who lost half his life to prison, yet imbues even moments of contentment with a bubbling melancholy.
Falco, a true pro at playing strained spouses, expertly keeps pity in check as her Carol comes to realize where she’s been, what she could have, and what to do about it. Adding a fair amount of pained color is Devers, whose Hildy — thankfully written to be a humane shading in this scenario, not a melodramatic construct — has the intelligence to recognize Chris’s importance to her mom while worrying that he’s her replacement.
It’s not a surprise that the movie eventually answers its big question, which, appropriately, creates further complications at the same time it deepens our care for these two “cracked vessels,” to use a descriptor for humans Carol gives her students in a classroom lecture on Greek mythology. Is a moment like that on the nose? Sure. But across Shelton’s movies, though her career is categorically indie in means and tone, she’s never been afraid of an on-the-nose moment, or a crowd-pleasing turn, or a laugh that’s just a laugh and a declaration that’s heartfelt and honest.
And “Outside In,” another one of her delightfully untucked meanders into the crossroads of lives, may be her quietly affecting best yet.