Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass have carved themselves an interesting niche of indie cinema that has consistently examined mid-30s age malaise as reflected in interpersonal relationships in the 21st century. Together—and separately—they’ve embarked on making character-driven films in which the main protagonists are flawed, uncertain individuals working through some type of anxiety and confusion during that pivotal stage in life when, culturally, one is to be expected to have everything already figured out. The latest example of this is Jay’s latest feature Outside In, in which he stars. It was co-written with and directed by Lynn Shelton, who previously worked with Mark on the 2009 mumblecore breakout Humpday.
While Outside In fits perfectly within the Duplass oeuvre, the film would be more appropriately classified as a triumph for Shelton, who draws marvelous performances from her principal cast. Jay plays Chris Connelly, an ex-con just released from prison after a 20-year stint for a murder he didn’t commit. He managed to stay sane in the Big House with help from his former high school teacher, Carol Beasley (Edie Falco), who gave him homework assignments in jail and faithfully kept in correspondence with Chris via letters and weekly phone calls.
Upon his release, Chris receives a tepid welcome from his well-meaning friends and family, who keep him at arm’s length and have their own baggage to deal with. While some old chums have started families during the two decades he was away, others—including Chris’ immature deadbeat brother, Ted (Ben Schwartz)—just haven’t grown up since high school. Essentially left to figure everything out alone, Chris feels stuck in his Granite Falls, Washington, hometown, having to catch up with technology while applying for low-paying jobs that offer him a dimension of shame each time he has to report his status as a convicted felon.
The reserved, quiet Chris turns to Carol for friendship, but, as he clumsily reveals, he’s also grown madly in love with her. Although Carol turns down his advances, she secretly feels stuck and alone in her own prison of a loveless marriage to Tom (Charles Leggett). Carol tries to integrate Chris into her family circle to assuage his loneliness and somehow fix her own relationship, but her bond with Chris is undeniable, and both are unable to keep from making decisions that leave the audience wondering whether this May-September romance will actually happen. Further complicating matters is the friendship that forms between Chris and Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever), an artsy, teenaged loner who is combative with her mother, Carol.
While there’s barely any earth-shattering drama taking place throughout the film’s 109-minute runtime, Outside In is a lovely masterclass of acting from Falco. With her big eyes and melancholy gaze, Falco’s Carol displays a tender vulnerability and warmth that’s hard to not love, and her skittery, nervous personality belies an inner strength and clearheadedness that Falco reserves for unexpected moments. Meanwhile, Duplass projects a disheveled exterior that easily gives Chris a sketchy vibe, yet there’s also a gentle, sensitive nature about him similar to that of a wounded puppy. Duplass and Falco shine together whether making humorous small talk or in more intimate, candid scenes.
Shelton makes good use of her lead actors’ rapport, but even better are their solo scenes meditating on the strange, murky waters of their lives. Both characters are upfront about their own shortcomings, but that only spurs the audience to root for them more. And while Shelton and Duplass grant them an uncertain ending, it’s more honest than a contrived, two-against-the-world joyous conclusion.
Dever and Schwartz also turn in pitch-perfect performances. Dever gives Hildy a silent resilience, while Schwartz, known mostly for playing comedic roles, is brilliantly cast as underachieving party-boy Ted who later reveals his own dark flaws.
Filmed against the gloomy, picturesque landscapes of Washington, shots of Chris looking outside his car window and riding around on his beat-up bicycle hammer the symbolism of freedom a little too heavily at times. Nonetheless, Outside In is a quaint piece of cinema that allows us to follow Duplass and Shelton’s lonesome characters as they orbit the precariousness of life’s detours—while also learning to embrace them.
Outside In was written by Jay Duplass and Lynn Shelton; directed by Shelton; and stars Duplass, Edie Falco, Kaitlyn Dever and Ben Schwartz. In theaters and on digital platforms Fri.