Lynn Shelton is a director whose films thrive in the quieter moments—an awkward glance shared between characters, or a casual, improvised conversation. From mumblecore-style low-budget comedies like Humpday to more mainstream efforts like Laggies, Shelton has always held on to a raggedy sort of realism, drawing out major story details from small personal interactions. Her new film, Outside In, which she wrote with the movie’s lead actor, Jay Duplass, is slightly more melodramatic than her previous works. But its central plot of an ex-con returning to life after 20 years in prison is less pulpy than it sounds.
Like every other Shelton movie, this is mostly a tale about human connection, and how those bonds are tested, stretched, and ultimately changed. Chris (a bearded, taciturn Duplass) went to jail as an 18-year-old for a crime he didn’t commit; at age 38, he’s finally free, helped by a campaign waged by his former high-school English teacher Carol (Edie Falco). It’s their lingering bond, and the strange ethical fault lines running through it, that fascinates Shelton. Outside In takes some time to develop that tension into something genuinely dramatic, but Falco’s performance is strong enough to make the film compelling even in its softest moments.
A relationship between a former teacher and student is morally complicated no matter the specifics of the scenario, but Shelton and Duplass have plotted a very particular quandary for the viewer to work through. For all of Chris’s years in prison, Carol was his closest friend, the only one who believed in him enough to stay in regular touch and fight for him. At the same time, Chris became the focus of a mid-life crisis of sorts for Carol, and her connection with him began to disrupt her marriage. Both were sounding boards for each other, and living far apart made it easier to confess their secrets.
Chris, who’s on parole and confined to living with his screw-up brother Ted (Ben Schwartz), is naturally not very trusting after his time behind bars. Carol is stuck in a marriage to the gruff, distant Tom (Charles Leggett), and the couple appear to be years removed from any real intimacy. So it makes sense that Chris and Carol would be drawn closer together, although their respective situations are annoyingly one-dimensional at times. Tom is an absurdly unfeeling partner who’s openly hostile from his first minute on screen. And Ted does just about everything wrong in trying to welcome his brother back to society, like throwing surprise parties populated by the ghosts of Chris’s high-school past and tempting him with alcohol and drugs.
Falco and Duplass have enough chemistry as it is, but the rest of the world seems to be conspiring to nudge Chris and Carol into an affair anyway. So Shelton introduces another element: Carol’s teenage daughter, Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever), who develops a crush on Chris. This kind of loose, vaguely creepy love triangle is a specialty for Shelton, who centered her 2012 film Your Sister’s Sister on another familial romance. But Outside In never veers into particularly transgressive territory, since this is a movie that’s more broadly about making complicated choices.
As Chris, Duplass is disappointingly flat. Though other characters treat him as somewhat intimidating (there are references made to his more hard-edged behavior as a teenager), there’s nothing especially threatening about his demeanor. At best, he’s a man whose senses have been dulled by his imprisonment, and who only seems to come alive with Carol. Even there, Falco is doing the heavy lifting. It’s hardly news that she’s an extraordinary actress, but this is still a rare role for her—a nuanced leading part in a film that lets her play a real, flawed human being with passion and depth.
Falco makes watching Carol come out of her shell with Chris a thrilling experience, and the repercussions (good and bad) that follow feel entirely earned thanks to her work. She can suggest so much with a wrinkled forehead or a stuttered line delivery; few actresses can communicate their characters’ public persona and private fears as economically. It’s one of the best performances of the year so far, and Falco is more than enough to make Outside In worth seeing, even if its narrative shortcuts sometimes frustrate.