Lynn Shelton is the rare American filmmaker to oscillate between contemplative dramas (“We Go Way Back,” “Touchy Feely”) and playful situational comedies (“Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister”). As such, her filmmaking voice — discounting the prolific TV direction of the last few years — extends across multiple genres and doesn’t really fit into any of them.
Her latest, “Outside In” is another somber, low-key drama, but its premise could just as easily work as cringe comedy. Both modes operate in service of minimalist character studies about people desperate for companionship, who hover on the verge of bad decisions in their attempts to set things right. Shelton’s work is understated, but elevates seemingly forgettable scenarios with a wise, humane approach that makes even a lesser work like “Outside In” a cut above the market standard.
Jay Duplass and Edie Falco anchor the movie with some of the very best performances in both of their careers. As the story begins, Chris (Duplass) has been released from prison in Washington, where he’s been incarcerated for 20 years on vague charges. He’s 40 years old and alienated from the only community he’s ever known, but finds one bright light in the quiet small town: Carol (Falco), his old high-school teacher, with whom he has stayed in touch over the years.
The pair developed a bond as Chris grew up behind bars that suggests a forbidden romance has started to take shape before the movie begins; once back in town, it’s only a matter of time before their romantic chemistry starts to evolve. Carol’s trapped in a loveless marriage, while butting heads with her rebellious daughter Hildy (Kaitlin Dever), and Chris represents an escape from the mundanity of her life. But he’s also a threat to that very same stability.
This conundrum unfolds under pretty routine circumstances, but that only allows its actors to enrich the material with a profound degree of credibility. Falco, so often a loud and combative screen presence, gives her most fragile, heartfelt performance, with her somber eyes and frozen half-smile defining the tone of the movie as whole. Duplass, meanwhile, maintains a spacey detachment throughout that exudes the sense of disconnection his character experiences from the world around him. It’s a quietly tragic performance in a movie that relishes that mood.
Shelton follows these characters through a series of whispered conversations and confrontations about whether or not they stand a chance together. In the process, “Outside In” works through the morality of their bond, and even as it builds its momentum around a fundamental question — will they or won’t they? — it doesn’t arrive at any firm answers, carrying the narrative along with a contemplative air. Nothing shocking or groundbreaking happens over the course of its somewhat overlong 109 minutes. But it maintains a remarkable consistency to the way in which it explores the dynamic of Carol’s uneven family life and Chris’ potential to screw things up on the path to rebuilding his life.
Shelton finds a subtle poetry in small moments, from a prolonged shot of Chris speeding through the neighborhood on his bike, enjoying his newfound freedom, to Carol gazing out at a rainy landscape. These scenes enrich the mounting desires at the root of the movie, and deepen its themes, but they also help root the movie in a precise space. The Pacific Northwest, which serves as the backdrop for all of Shelton’s work, serves as an ideal setting for this subdued portrait of suburban discontent.
“Outside In” was produced by Netflix, and it seems to have been conceived with the platform in mind. It’s the paragon of Netflix filmmaking done right: Despite its lush visuals, the movie could work just as well on the small screen, and its plot hardly demands anything more than the feature-length treatment. You wouldn’t want to binge on multiple episodes of this story, but as a snapshot of genuine emotion, it goes on just long enough.
“Outside In” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and opens in limited theatrical release on March 30, 2018.