Life is never as easy as it seems, an unsettling truism that is grappled with in different but sometimes overlapping ways by the three central characters in Lynn Shelton’s film Outside In.
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, this hauntingly low-key and engagingly-nuanced film looks at the way our life expectations often fail to square up with the the reality on the ground, with the luxury of ignoring that gaping chasm simply not available to people ex-con Chris (Jay Duplass), his old high school English teacher and campaigner for his release Carol (Edie Falco) and Carol’s disaffected daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever).
Returning to the small town of Granite Falls in Shohomish County, Washington, after 20 years in prison, Chris is a man well and truly adrift – he is out of sync with two decades of technological advancement and societal change, but even more challengingly, he is a 38-year-old with the life skills and outlook of an 18-year-old which is the age at which he was imprisoned.
This doesn’t lead to too many awkward moments (save for hanging out at a skateboard park on his old bike) – thanks to his ongoing contact with Carol, who was his only real form of contact during his prison years – his brother Ted (Ben Schwartz) had little contact with him, triggered we learn by the fact that he was involved in the crime that sent Chris to prison and feared guilt by association – but there are times when it’s clear that Chris is struggling to act like someone his age.
That’s, of course, to be expected; the last time he was free the world was a completely different place and he was a completely differently person in it; while he has matured in prison, this maturity doesn’t lend itself well to life on the outside and he struggles to make or re-establish connections.
That’s with the exception of Carol with whom, it soon becomes clear he has formed an especially close, almost intimate, bond, one so close in fact that it becomes his sole lifeline in a town where people welcome him back but aren’t inclined, save for his brother, to socialise with him, give him work or treat him normally.
While he is keen to see Carol often, and expectant that the closeness they had while he was a prisoner and she was fighting for his release will not just be maintained, but deepen and grow to something even more profound and romantic, Carol hangs back, wanting to save her marriage to Tom (Charles Leggett) to sees nothing wrong with their emotionally-stultified marriage and is disinclined to do anything to save it, and keep her family intact.
It’s clear from Falco’s mastery of small gestures and portentous verbal cues containing an entire universe of meaning that she loves Chris as much as she loves him but she rebuffs each and every entreaty he makes until, with Tom essentially driving a stake into the heart of their marriage by his casual disregard, she gives in and they spend the day together, consummating a relationship that has long been in existence by other means.
Watching Chris, redolent with urgency and desperation for some form of meaningful connection, beyond the unexpected friendship he forges with Hildy, and Carol, all drab and squashed-down and clearly yearning for more, dance around each other, eager to go further but unsure what that would look like and how to get there, is one of the film’s richest dynamics.
These are people, along with Hildy, who clearly want more, much more from life that what they’ve got; but while Chris is happy for a small “l” life with job, home and the occasional hike, Carol is eyeing more prisoner advocacy work, a move to somewhere like Seattle and a life writ large.
They are clearly then on completely different pages but that makes perfect sense – Carol has had to grapple with life as it is lived while Chris has had only expectation and hope to sustain him, without the emotional or life maturity to understand that they may not translate well into real life.
They clearly want the same thing but approach it from completely different angles, leading you to wonder if they’ll ever find common ground.
Being a resident of the emotionally-potent slice-of-life drama, there are no easy outcomes or answers, which mirrors the way things are for many of us – the things we wish for we don’t always get, and dealing with that vast, unknowable, often unbridgeable gap can be the source of much loss and regret.
For all those crushing realities, however, the powerfully quiet script by Shelton and Duplass, which asks some fairly intense questions in the most small and intimately-recoiled of ways, offers some hope, however slight hope that there is a way forward, even though, in common with life’s harsh realities, there is guarantees that this will lead to anything long-term and certainly not something that will satisfy either party.
What they do share in common, and here Hildy has a shared stake, is the need for something anything to happen.
Chris needs work, friends, a life in other words, Carol needs Tom to either fight for or flee the marriage and set her free to realise her big, expansive dreams and Hildy, an talented installation artist who transforms a burnt-out shell of a house into a wondrous pink-strand-laden testament to ephemeral connection, a renewed connection to her mother in a family composed of three geographically contiguous but emotionally-distanced people.
This is explored in the sparse but meaningful dialogues, the pregnant pauses and awkward glances and stilted gazes and the starkly beautiful, arresting cinematography of Nathan M. Miller which takes roads, both empty and in use, as a metaphor for forward momentum which, in Outside In, is more aspirational than use.
It may sound like a nakedly clunky visual metaphor but it works exquisitely well, highlighting the roads to freedom that beckon but are not actually travelled by any of the parties, at least not in the transformational ways they need.
Outside In then is a beautifully-wrought, soulfully-rich homage to the power of expectancy and hope and the way this is often, but not always, stymied by the dead hand of grinding reality.
What keeps it buoyant and engaging, are the stellar performances, especially by Duplass and Falco, the script’s transcendent ability to talk big in small and intimate moments, but also the sense that, regardless of life’s constant disappointments and unrealised/potentially-unrealisable dreams, that you may one day get what you want or need, or if not, then close enough to make all that hoping and dreaming worthwhile enough.